Battle of the belly buttons on Afghan television

Love affairs, foreign gods and ladies' belly-buttons are at the centre of a row threatening Afghanistan's free press.

Broadcasters are locked in a battle with the country's Information Minister, after two television stations ignored ultimatums to stop showing Indian soap operas.

The government is trying to ban Indian serials – must-see TV for millions of ordinary Afghans – on the grounds that they are un-Islamic, because they show couples courting, women cheating and too much female flesh. They also show characters worshipping Hindu gods.

Some Islamic clerics have threatened to blow up TV antennae if the shows are not pulled. But the country's most popular broadcaster, Tolo TV, has defied government threats to shut down the shows, and they have accused officials of attacking the media in a manner reminiscent of the Taliban, which used tanks to destroy TV sets.

The Ministry of Information and Culture has delivered three ultimatums ordering broadcasters to stop showing the programmes, but twice they have had to extend the deadlines after Tolo, which brought Afghanistan its own version of Pop Idol, and a smaller station, Afghan TV, refused to cave in to their demands.

The broadcasters now have until Tuesday to take the shows off the air. In its most recent statement, the ministry said: "Tolo and Afghan TV are informed for the last time to stop broadcasting certain serials as soon as possible. Otherwise, they will be referred to legal and judicial authorities."

"These serials have become an icon for free speech," said Tolo's director Jahid Mohseni. "This is a stand that we have to make."

He rejected claims that the government's opposition was based on protecting Islam. "It has got nothing to do with Islam," he added. "It is about using Islam as a dogma to attack people. The Taliban did pretty much the same thing."

Afghanistan's National Union of Journalists reacted yesterday by launching an advertising campaign to highlight what they described as government-sponsored "threats to democracy".

The union's president, Abdul Hamim Mobarez, said: "We are defending free speech and democracy in our country. There is nothing against our religion in these shows. We strongly believe these actions will endanger our democracy."

Broadcasters invariably blur female characters' shoulders, backs and mid-rifts whenever their saris are too revealing.

Tolo insists the ban is illegal under the country's constitution, which enshrines free speech, and they point to viewing figures of more than 11 million as proof the shows do not offend Afghan culture. They say freedom of speech is facing a "crisis".

The Minister of Information and Culture, Abdul Karim Khurram, named five soaps he wanted banned last week, after consulting the influential Ulemma Council of Islamic scholars. President Hamid Karzai has since sided with the mullahs declaring there are too many foreign shows.

At least two stations cancelled their Indian soaps.

More than a dozen stations have sprung up since 2001 following the overthrow of the Taliban.

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