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Afghanistan: Popular TV Channel Attacked As 'Immoral,' 'Un-Islamic'

Television has become more popular again after the fall of the Taliban (AFP) A popular Afghan television channel, known for its Indian soap operas and "Pop Idol"-style talent contest, has come under pressure from Afghan officials for broadcasting what they call "immoral and un-Islamic" programs.

The Afghan Information and Culture Ministry on March 29 "strongly condemned" the broadcasting of a scene on Tolo television that showed a group of Afghan women and men dancing together at a film awards ceremony.

The ministry said that the program was "against the beliefs and traditions of the Islamic society of Afghanistan." Afghan Culture Minister Abdulkarim Khorram told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that Tolo will be referred to a state media-monitoring committee to determine whether it violated the media law by showing the dance scene.

"Not only do we denounce this show, we will also try to find ways to prevent these issues from happening again," Khorram said.

Tolo editors told Radio Free Afghanistan that airing the dance scene, on the night of March 28, "was an unfortunate mistake that occurred because of some technical errors."

Heated Debate

The broadcast led to a debate in the Afghan parliament the following day, with some conservative deputies calling for the station to be shut down. On March 31, the lower house of parliament passed a resolution, which aims to ban television programs from showing dancing and other activities deemed un-Islamic.

The strongest condemnation came from Abdurrasul Sayaf, a deputy and former warlord, who accused Tolo of being an entry point for "foreign conspiracies."

However, other parliament deputies stood by the station and what they called "freedom of speech and media."

Fawzia Kufi, a female legislator from Badakhshan Province, insisted that the parliament has no right to close a television channel, and that such action by the deputies would undermine the country's constitution. And media-rights activists in Afghanistan say the government and the conservative lawmakers' stance is an attack on freedom of speech.

Rahimullah Samandar, the president of the Independent Afghan Journalists Association, told RFE/RL that "it is not only Tolo that has been targeted by some conservative and former jihadi elements inside the government and the parliament."

'Immoral' Foreign TV

According to Samandar, the Information and Culture Ministry and the Afghan Religious Council recently condemned several television broadcasters, including Tolo, Ariyana, and Noorin for broadcasting foreign TV series, which they deemed "immoral." They demanded that the television stations discontinue the series.

Samandar says most ordinary Afghans, however, enjoy such programming.

"Afghans are tired of decades of war and restrictions, and now they want light and entertaining TV programs," Samandar says. "As a young person myself, I support these shows. Most young Afghans want these programs to continue and even increase. Apart from a group of hard-liners and those who belong to jihadi or religious groups, the rest of society is in favor of such television shows."

Tolo, which was launched in October 2004, is considered by many Afghans to be the country's most popular television station. While attracting huge audiences among Afghan youth, it is often criticized by conservative clerics and politicians for its relatively liberal programming.

Afghan Star

Earlier this month, Tolo was severely criticized by hard-liners for hosting "Afghan Star," a national music contest held among young singers -- both male and female. The final program of the six-month show was reportedly watched by more than 10 million viewers, while around 300,000 people sent text messages from their mobile phones to vote for the competition's two finalists.

Conservative government officials, however, demanded that the show be banned, saying it was designed to encourage immorality and was against Afghanistan's culture and tradition. Their main objection was to the participation of women on the show.

Lema Sahar, a 20-year-old Pashtun woman, became the first female contender on "Afghan Star" to finish so high -- placing third -- since the show was launched in 2005. Sahar is from the conservative Kandahar Province, the onetime capital of the Taliban regime, which had enforced a complete ban on music during its reign.

Sahar says she has been physically threatened several times, including by phone calls during the night. Another female contestant, Setara Hussainzada from the western Herat Province, was forced to go into hiding in February after she received death threats for taking part in the television show. In January, Afghanistan's national council of religious scholars called on President Hamid Karzai to ban several "immoral" television shows, including "Afghan Star."

More than 10 private television stations have been launched in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban administration in 2001. During its strict regime, the Taliban banned television as un-Islamic, with its supporters smashing people's television sets and beating up and arresting offenders.

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the region’s ongoing struggle with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.