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Kabul TV Station Faces Officials' Wrath

A young boy watches an Indian soap opera in a Kabul electronics shop.
A new private Kabul television station, Emrooz, has made a name for itself by airing entertainment and music programs mainly focused on youth.

But the upstart broadcaster's quest for ratings has earned the wrath of authorities, with prosecutors accusing it of undermining Afghan society's traditional Islamic values and influential detractors threatening to revoke its broadcast license.

Critics are upset at the station for broadcasting scenes and clips of immodestly dressed women, notably Tajik and Indian singers and dancers.

Emrooz staff were questioned by Kabul prosecutors this week.

Fahim Kohdamani, a program editor at Emrooz, tells RFE/RL that station managers were repeatedly summoned by the Information and Culture Ministry before their case was referred to the Office of the Prosecutor-General.

"Emrooz is the only Afghan television that does not censor music clips," Kohdamani says. "We air video clips by Tajik, Iranian, Afghan, Indian, and even sometimes Arab and European music clips that show female and male performers signing and dancing. The Ministry of Culture has always had this problem with us."

Cultural Standoff

Emrooz producers insist they have violated no laws but are being forced to choose between overly aggressive self-censorship and even more rigid censorship by government agencies.

Kohdamani criticizes the ministry for putting pressure on private television stations -- forcing them to censor themselves and violating their right to free expression.

Culture Ministry officials insist there is a limit to free expression in the media. The ministry has set up a Commission for Monitoring Media Misconduct to ensure that Afghan media outlets stay within certain "limits."

Abdul Shukur Dadras, a member of the commission, accuses Emrooz of undermining Afghan society's traditional Islamic values.

"There is no impediment at all to news agencies, private or national TV stations airing music, entertainment, and educational programs. In fact, they have an obligation to air such programs," Dadras says, adding that there is no prohibition on such things.

But he stresses that broadcasters "have to act within our legal framework -- [and] that means they should not broadcast scenes that the Muslim population of Afghanistan cannot accept, such as half-naked scenes that are not compatible with Islamic and traditional values." Dadras adds, "We told them not to air such scenes."

He says Emrooz's programming first came to the ministry's attention after a Kabul group filed a complaint with the ministry about the station's "immoral" and "un-Islamic" shows.

Not The First...

Emrooz is not the first private Afghan television station to be targeted by the media-monitoring commission.

Last year, several stations -- including Tolo, Ariyana, and Shamshad -- were strongly criticized by the ministry, the Religious Council, and conservative parliamentarians for airing Indian television series.

Tolo executives were forced to apologize publicly for airing a program that showed Afghan women and men dancing together.

The content of such entertainment channels have elicited mixed reactions from Afghans. Many people believe that in Afghanistan's deeply religious society, such programs go too far.

Emrooz producers admit that not everyone is happy with their programs, and that some people see them as alien to Afghan culture.

Afghan media expert Zubair Shafiqi warns that television stations have to be extremely cautious not to provoke angry reactions.

Shafiqi has called on Emrooz editors not to ignore Afghanistan's cultural status quo. He says provocative shows can lead to tensions, threaten the country's fragile stability, and provide extremists with justification for their attacks on the government.

"They have to observe fairness and balance," Shafiqi says. "They can air entertainment and music programs, but these programs should be prepared according to standards that are acceptable and tolerable to our society, so that they do not create unfavorable public opinion and provoke people against the government and the international community."

...And Probably Not The Last

Despite the criticism, music clips, soap operas, and seemingly non-traditional movies are hugely popular among many Kabul residents and the country's younger generation.

Tolo's national talent-search contest, "Afghan Star," reportedly attracted more than 10 million viewers last year. The station claimed it received more than 300,000 phone text messages from people who voted for the show's finalists.

Despite Emrooz's pending legal wrangle, and the threat of a lost television license for the station and lost freedom for some individuals within the company, Emrooz appears defiant.

The station is launching a national search for male and female models. The show will be broadcast monthly, with more than 2,000 contestants competing for two top prizes over four months.

It will be Afghanistan's first publicly declared fashion program -- and it has already incurred threats.

But Emrooz executives, defiant in the face of such threats, say they will continue to break down taboos -- even if they must pay a price for doing so.
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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 impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.