Turn on, tune in to Radio Taliban

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The Independent Online
The morning editorial meeting at Radio Kabul is a sombre affair. Bearded Taliban soldiers sit around a dusty desk deep in concentration, their AK-47s leaning against their chairs.

They are meeting to decide how to fill the day's air-time. It does not take long. Music, singing and other forms of entertainment are banned in Kabul so they do not have to worry about quiz shows or the Top 40, and after 10 minutes the soldiers have worked out the programme.

First, the seven o'clock news. By common consent it will be similar to the previous day's news and the day before that. Listeners will be told how the Taliban Islamic fundamentalist army killed hundreds of troops from the opposing former government forces, led by Ahmed Shah Massoud, overnight. It might concede that one or two Taliban freedom fighters were martyred during the course of the battle.

The newsreader will also detail how the Taliban army have pushed Mr Massoud's troops further from Kabul. There will be no independent confirmation of any of the casualty figures and no reports from the other side.

After the news the announcer will issue the latest government edict. Recently the Voice of Shariat told listeners that if they missed their daily prayers they would be punished. Another edict banned cigarettes. "Because Muslims don't have need for narcotics."

Then he will play his favourite dirge. Although singing is not allowed, wailing is perfectly acceptable, as long as the words are serious enough and in sympathy with Taliban sentiments.

It may be a Taliban army prayer, or a religious poem. The unofficial number one in Kabul this week is not obviously catchy. "Allah is Great, Allah is Great, Allah is Great. Znzabad Afghanistan."

This may be repeated several times, for the listeners' own good, while the soldiers fumble with their ancient Soviet broadcasting equipment. They are trying something new today.Residents of the city have been invited into the radio station to tell listeners how happy they are under the new government.

When the Taliban arrived in Kabul last month they found the radio station deserted. Journalists who worked for the previous government had fled the bomb-damaged building, leaving the ancient microphones, sound equipment and cassette players for the new regime.

Since then the Taliban soldiers have done what Kabul residents thought impossible. They have made the government radio station even more boring than it was before. The first thing the new editorial team did was to change its name. Radio Kabul became Voice of Shariat - or Voice of Islamic Law. They sacked the female announcers and staff, threw out the jingles and burnt the songs popular with the mujahadeen.

Shafi Shah, a taxi-driver and regular listener to Radio Kabul, said he used to dislike the former government's political songs and independence poems which were broadcast previously on the station; now he longs to hear them again. "It was quite lively, there were women reading the news, stories about Afghan history and information for families. Now we have to listen to prayers and instructions about how to live our lives all day."

If the city's residents do not like the Voice of Shariat, they can turn it off, but they cannot tune into an alternative radio station or watch television for different versions of the day's news. The Taliban have closed the television station and shut down Kabul's small film industry.

Maulvi Mohammad Ishaq Nezami was a Taliban fighter until he became head of Voice of Shariat and its chief news reader. He insisted that the station is a democratic forum and said it received 450 letters last week asking the Taliban to improve their lives. "They write and ask us to ban the illegal black market for changing money and to broadcast more religious instructions."

He said that some letters were from women complaining about the Taliban's ban on working women and educating girls. "We tell them that we will re- open schools for girls when we have control of the whole of Afghanistan."

After watching the morning editorial meeting it is surprising the Voice of Shariat is ever heard. Electricity flickers on and off the windows have no glass.

Mr Nezami is not deterred by the technical difficulties. "Afghan people have to be told that we are good for them, that is our job and that is what we will continue to do."