Afghan court revisits days of the Taliban with ban on cable TV

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The Independent Online

Cable television stations showing hip-swivelling Bollywood dancers and Britney Spears dance sequences have been banned by Kabul's Supreme Court in a move echoing the Taliban's stifling edicts.

Judges whose ranks are dominated by Islamic fundamentalists ordered cable TV to be switched off across the city this week, saying the raunchy films many Afghans have become addicted to were "unIslamic" and against traditionally modest Afghan norms.

The judges were supported by the Culture Minister, a highly esteemed Sufi poet and liberal who believes his countrymen's obsession with Indian movies is coarsening cultural life and threatening traditional art forms.

The joint action by notoriously hardline judges and a minister known for championing liberal causes was labelled an unholy alliance by cable TV operators who consider the ban an assault on freedom of expression.

The ban was introduced soon after Tolo TV went on air last month, although terrestrial viewers can still see Tolo TV's programmes, because the ban extends only to cable television. The new station has pioneered a breezy format created by a trio of Afghan brothers who grew up in Australia and who returned to become Afghanistan's first media tycoons, with a nationwide network of radio stations and a magazine for Kabul's expat community.

To Westerners, their latest enterprise, Tolo TV, seems an innocuous mix of chat shows and music videos, and promises to be a huge hit with Afghan viewers. But it has drawn flak from intellectuals for being downmarket, and from conservatives for showing too much female flesh. Its female newsreaders and presenters are enclosed in headscarves but chat and laugh with male counterparts, to the horror of conservatives.

Saad Mohseni, the oldest brother, said: "We have to let the masses decide whether they like Britney Spears. We think the masses have spoken, and we will give them what they are after."

The Supreme Court judges think differently. After pronouncing judgment, they referred with disapproval to the high number of Indian films screened, with song-and-dance sequences showing scantily clad women.

They also singled out the screening of a film about Moses, a prophet for Muslims as well as Christians, although they did not explain exactly why they were upset about it.

Two other cable channels, a state one regarded as too dull to watch and another foreign music channel, were also banned.

Sayed Raheen, the Minister of Information and Culture, brought the case before the judges. He said: "The cable networks are annoying and misleading people. There should be harmonisation in line with Islamic and Afghan values."

Mr Mohseni said he was bitterly disappointed that the Culture Minister had supported judges whose views differ little from the Taliban. He claimed that the byzantine nature of Afghan politics was to blame for the surprising alliance, and insisted Mr Raheen was trying to win backing from hardliners ahead of a cabinet reshuffle he is not expected to survive.

Mr Mohseni said: "This is a real surprise. Raheen has done so much to resist the fundamentalists in the past. Ultimately, here he wants the fundamentalist lobby pleading his case with the President. Many people are very, very disappointed in him; the things some people will do for power."

The minister has often expressed his concerns about Bollywood films and the threat they pose to Afghan music and culture. The Bombay films are followed in Afghanistan with as much enthusiasm as they are in India.

Only three years ago, the Taliban jailed people caught watching smuggled Indian films, confiscated TV sets and draped trees with tape torn from forbidden videos. Police from the Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue searched homes looking for evidence of video viewing, and stopped cars to hunt for Indian music tapes.

Since the fall of the Taliban, Bollywood tunes are everywhere. Taxi-drivers often decorate their cabs with postcards of starlets. In the major cities, cinemas again show the latest releases from India and bazaars are full of bootleg DVDs.

One 25-year-old Kabuli, Farhad, said: "Life here can be grim. Bollywood is a beautiful world to escape into."