MULLAHS VERSUS BOLLYWOOD
As two Afghan TV stations hold out against a ban on Indian soap operas, analysts warn freedom of speech is at stake.
By Hafizullah Gardesh in Kabul
With two television states still battling a government ban on Indian serials regarded as too racy for local sensibilities, viewers are trying to make sense of the government’s increasingly muddled media policy.
The dispute has raised questions about who should have the moral authority to censor the airwaves, how politics influences decisions on the media, and – most importantly of all – what kind of society Afghans want.
The Ministry of Information and Culture gave private channels a deadline of April 15, later extended by a week to April 22, to stop showing certain Bollywood series on the grounds that they offended Afghan sensibilities.
The ministry demanded that five serials be taken off the air.
Two television stations, Noorin and Ariana, bowed to the ban, but Tolo, responsible for two of the series, and Afghan TV have continued to air the popular serials.
The ministry has referred Tolo TV to the prosecutor’s office, but no legal action had been launched by the time this report was published.
The Indian-made soaps enjoy huge popularity among viewers. However, at a meeting last month with religious scholars and TV representatives, Information and Culture Minister Abdul Karim Khurram claimed these programmes ran counter to Islamic culture and promoted “idolatry” with their depictions of Hindu imagery.
Critics say the clothing worn by the female actors is too revealing for Afghan tastes. The dialogue and plot lines are also offensive to many, with hints of unlawful sexual conduct and other titillating material.
The driving force behind the government ban was the Council of Clerics, which brings together leading Muslim scholars. The council had called for all Indian serials to be taken off the airwaves, but expressed satisfaction with the selective ban.
“We are against anything that is against the tenets of Islam. We propose that broadcasting be adjusted to fit Islamic culture,” said Enayatullah Baligh, a member of the Council of Clerics. He said clerics were pleased with what the ministry had done although they felt it had not gone far enough.
Baligh said the Council of Clerics would assert its right to prevent immorality at any cost.
“We prevent all kinds of vice. We aren’t afraid to do so even if it means we are described as Taleban, al-Qaeda or something else,” he said. “We defend anyone who defends Islam. Afghanistan is an Islamic country and it should live under the umbrella of Islamic law.”
The cleric added that the council was well able to act on such matters independently, but in this instance had chosen to defer to government – as long as it acted in the correct manner.
The Senate or upper chamber of parliament has backed the ministry’s decision. Members of the lower house also spoke out against the “anti-Islamic” content of TV programming last month. In addition to the drama serials, they were annoyed by a show in which men and women were seen dancing together.
At national level, a bitter debate continues between those who want to impose a conservative morality and advocates of freedom of speech.
Some, like Abdul Hamid Mubariz, head of the National Union of Journalists, insist that the ban is a deliberate ploy by political and religious conservatives.
“There is a body of people in government who want to do without freedom of speech and democracy,” he said. “They are people who see freedom of speech as being against their own personal interest.
“If we are to follow Taleban-style policies, then why didn’t Mullah Omar become president of Afghanistan instead of Hamed Karzai?” he asked.
Mubariz challenged President Karzai to issue a formal ruling on the matter.
“Karzai should issue a decree and snatch away our freedom. Then we will take away from him the mantle of freedom and democracy,” he said.
Karzai has issued contradictory statements, straddling a line between upholding freedom of speech, as guaranteed by the constitution, and backing moves to defend Afghan culture.
But the Ministry of Information and Culture has no such qualms.
“Every freedom has its limits,” said ministry spokesman Hamid Naseri. “Every human being is free insofar as he does not violate and harm the person, sensibilities and faith of others.”
Naseri said that the ministry had issued its ruling based on “hundreds” of complaints sent in by members of the public.
“This is the people’s will, and we respect the wishes of our people,” he said.
Naseri also attacked external critics who depicted the TV serial ban as a restriction of media freedom. Responding to a statement issued by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, he said it had “misjudged” the situation.
“Without contacting the people and our ministry or being award of the reality, they contact traitors and accept what they say and react to that,” he alleged.
Turning to the private TV stations, Naseri accused them of being too lazy to make their own programmes, despite what he said was encouragement by the ministry to use Afghans in productions that reflected local values and traditions.
“Officials at Tolo TV are trying to ‘hide the sun behind two fingers’ [conceal the obvious]. What scenes in these serials and movies are based on Islamic and Afghan culture? This is a cultural assault pursued by Tolo TV.”
Sediq Ahmadzada, executive manager of Tolo TV, maintains that there is no justification for halting the Indian serials.
“Our programmes and broadcasts are not against the law. The statement the information ministry sent us does not contain any convincing legal reasons,” he said. “We resist any pressure that is not legal and we will continue our broadcasts.”
Political analyst Mohammad Qasim Akhgar believes that the background to this dispute has more to do with politics than with morality.
“There are some fundamentalists in government, who have put pressure on private TV stations, and Tolo in particular, in the past, too. This is a continuation of that previous pressure,” said Akhgar. “This group of people is trying to eliminate free speech as a way of maintaining their strength and giving legitimacy to their demands. Freedom of speech unmasks their plans and programmes.”
Control of the media is becoming increasingly important as Afghanistan prepares for presidential elections in 2009. Many political groups have opened their own media outlets, and Akhgar is not alone in thinking that there may be political motives behind the current tussle over the airwaves.
Akhgar disputed the ministry spokesman’s claim that the ban reflected popular demand.
“It’s completely the other way round…. People really want these serials to be broadcast. Those who complain about [them] can switch off or watch something else,” he said. “Representing this as if it came from the people is not good.”
Another analyst, Ahmad Sayedi, said it was hard to know what was really really going on in government, given the mixed messages coming out about freedom of speech.
“In a situation like this, one gets confused. On the one hand, President Hamed Karzai talks about freedom of speech and sees himself as a defender of freedom, but on the other hand, the information and culture ministry does not believe in freedom of speech. We don’t really know what is behind the curtain,” he said.
Kabul residents are divided in their outlook on the ban, and on the controversy surrounding it.
Some, like Dr Gul Rasul, argue that the Indian soaps undermine Afghan traditions, and even faith.
He recalled the day he visited relatives to pay his respects after a death in the family. Afterwards, his five-year-old daughter asked him, “Father, why were the family of the deceased not wearing white?”
Rasul explained that this was because Afghans wear black as mourning, whereas the Indian actors on TV wear white.
Schoolteacher Saleha complained that her pupils were slacking because they spent so much time gripped by the latest serials.
“The children have stopped attending to their lessons,” she said. They watch these serials until late into the night. I teach the first grade, and believe me, the girls aged six and seven pay no attention to their lessons. They’re always telling each other romantic stories about the actors from these serials.”
On the other hand Zuhra, who is 18, loves the Indian soap operas so much that she dresses like the actresses.
She says it is wrong to blame Indian programmes for Afghanistan’s many problems, “There are thefts, robberies, murders and thousands of other anti-Islamic actions taking place in this country but the Council of Clerics, parliament and government never pay attention to these things because they are implicated in these crimes themselves,” she said. “Yet they try to ban a few Indian serials that spread love, friendship and honesty among the people.”
Hafizullah Gardesh is IWPR’s local editor in Kabul.