Sat, Nov 13, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Afghan government bans cable TV

IMPROPER Bollywood and Charlton Heston do not go down well withe the country's top Islamic judge, who has asked for tighter guidelines

AP , KABUL

A poster of a Hollywood movie, center, is displayed along with Bollywood films and pop videos, right, at a film DVD market as Afghan customers looks on, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday.

PHOTO: AP

It might seem tame fare, but Bollywood movies, Western pop videos and even Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments have got Afghanistan's fledgling cable TV stations in hot water.

This week, an appeal from the country's top Islamic judge prompted the Cabinet to order the networks temporarily off the air -- just three years since a Taliban ban on television was lifted.

"The consequences are disastrous for Afghanistan," Saad Mohseni, director of Tolo TV, said Thursday. He forecast more restrictions would follow.

The spat is the latest in the battle for control of Afghan society between still-influential religious conservatives, and liberals and entrepreneurs enjoying new Afghan media freedoms.

Supreme Court chief justice Fazl Hadi Shinwari, an arch conservative, picked the moment of maximum impact to strike.

"It was during Ramadan prayers in the mosque at the presidential palace. The ambassadors from several Islamic countries were also there," said Mohammed Yusuf Etebar, President-elect Hamid Karzai's top civil servant said.

"The Supreme Court chief told Mr. Karzai about the wicked films, that these cable channels are against Afghan culture and against Afghan values."

US-backed Karzai's Cabinet decided to shut down all cable TV until new regulations are drawn up on what they can show.

It was a victory for Shinwari who was on the losing side in January, when the government ignored his protests over the return of veiled female singers to state television screens. The ban had originated with Islamic fundamentalists who ruled in the early 1990s and was lifted only when the repressive Taliban regime fell.

But following Karzai's victory in Afghanistan's landmark Oct. 9 election, the liberals have lost their champion. Culture Minister Makhdom Raheen fought for the TV stations in January, but critics now accuse him of switching sides to ensure his post as Karzai ponders how to build a government that reaches out to all parts of Afghan society.

Mohammed Hashem Pakzad, the owner of Ariana, one of about 20 cable operators in Kabul, said he read about the new ban in the newspaper and stopped transmitting for fear police "in a bad mood" might come and smash up his office.

"I'm a Muslim, and I wouldn't show any sexy films," he said. "This is just a conspiracy against the cable operators. These people just want to keep Afghan people in the dark."

Wahid Mujdah, a Supreme Court spokesman, made plain the conservatives' main target are the Indian films hugely popular with young Afghans for their raunchy dance routines.

"Immoral" movies were even blamed for the recent fatal stabbing of a student at Kabul University which has led to street protests in capital.

"The boys are disturbing the girls in these films. Then there are gangs fighting each other. All these things are against Afghan culture," Mujdah said.

A screening last week of the The Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston provided more ammunition.

"It showed the prophet Moses with short trousers and among the girls," Mujhad said. "He's a very holy person and Islam respects him. This is wrong."

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