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Un-Islamic TV Channel "in Trouble"

Government cracks down on a private television station it claims is violating traditional values.
By Amanullah Nasrat

In its first move against a private television station, the government has imposed a 1,000 US dollars fine on Afghan TV for broadcasting “un-Islamic” materials.

The fine was levied by a special media commission, composed of six members from various government organs, and headed by the minister of information, culture and tourism.

The commission, which has been in place for about a year, is responsible for enforcing the country’s media law and reviewing the public’s complaints against newspapers and broadcasters.

Afghanistan’s media law prohibits the publication or broadcast of any material that is considered counter to Islamic law.

Deputy Minister of Information and Culture Sayed Aqa Hussain Sancharaki, who was present when the decision to fine Afghan TV was taken, said that the media commission had previously met with the heads of all five of Kabul’s television stations, both public and private, and urged them to cut materials that violated the Koran and Afghan culture.

But despite the warning, said Sancharaki, Afghan TV, a private station, continued to air movies and music videos that broke the media law.

“We are protectors of press freedom, but we have a responsibility to society as well, not to let our young people be misled by violence and sensuality,” he told IWPR.

Ahmad Shah Afghanzai, the owner of Afghan TV, said he is angry and bewildered by the fine. “I still do not know why [we have] been fined, nor do I know to whom I am supposed to give the money,” he told IWPR.

A statement issued by the broadcaster said, “Afghan TV is upset by this decision, which was made in its absence. We consider it unfair. Afghan TV has always designed its broadcasts based on the constitution and the media law.”

Sancharaki disputed the station’s version of events,

“The commission called Afghanzai in twice and outlined to him the complaints against him. We showed him clips which had been broadcast by his station, and he admitted that they were against our society’s values and promised it would not happen again.”

Afghan TV is one of four private stations in Kabul, and has been broadcasting since late 2004. It has a limited reach – it cannot be seen outside the capital, and does not reach every neighbourhood even in Kabul.

Afghan TV devotes the bulk of it 24-hour programming to music and films, with no news and a few analytical programmes.

At first glance, Afghan TV would not seem to be the most daring of the private stations. Tolo TV, one that is widely considered the most popular television channel in the country, has been at the centre of many controversies since it went on air in October 2004.

Ariana, another private outlet that began broadcasting at the end of 2005, has also shown movies and music videos that some have called obscene. The difference, said Sancharaki, is that Tolo and Ariana have agreed to what amounts to self-censorship.

“They [Tolo and Ariana] established offices in their stations to censor and control their broadcasts," said Sancharaki.

But the head of the news section at the Ariana Television Network, Ali Yawar Salimi, said that Araina’s censorship section was established independently of the government to ensure that Ariana’s broadcasts did not put it in conflict with Islamic culture.

"We have always had a section for controlling our broadcasts,” he said. “This was not due to pressure from the government.”

Tolo TV declined to comment on the issue. However, it has recently begun obscuring the screen during particularly risqué music videos and movies.

Rahimullah Samander, head of the Afghan Independent Journalists Association, AIJA, and a member of the media commission, defended the decision to fine Afghan TV. According to Samander, Article 33 of the media law provides for penalties against private media outlets if they go against the law.

“I am not happy that Afghan TV was fined, but I have to say it was fair,” he told IWPR. “Media in Afghanistan are only now becoming familiar with their new freedoms. If a media organisation is closed down, it would be a major blow, so levying a fine is the best option. This happens all over the world.”

Under the Taleban, music and film were forbidden; even photography was banned. When the restrictions were lifted, some media outlets sought to test the limits of what is considered acceptable.

Even today, material that would seem fairly tame by international standards – such as women dancing “suggestively” or with bare midriffs, and movies depicting couples kissing – is considered taboo.

Some Kabul residents applaud the commission’s decision, hoping this will be a lesson to other media to respect Afghan tradition.

“These private television stations are trying to replace Afghan culture with foreign culture,” said Sayed Atta Mohammad, 36. “I want the ministry of information and culture to shut these stations down.”

Others, however, fear that the ruling signals a crackdown on press freedom.

According to 29-year-old Habibullah, “By taking this decision, the ministry of information and culture once again showed the world that there is no freedom of the press in Afghanistan, and that the culture of the Taleban is still dominant.”

Amanullah Nasrat is an IWPR staff reporter in Kabul.

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