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Racy foreign films prompt cable ban in Afghanistan

By Lane HartillCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 7, 2004


One midnight during Ramadan, Sullyman got up and flipped on the TV. His family was sitting down to eat before the 4 a.m. prayer and he decided to do a little channel surfing. But the station he landed on stunned him.

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"It was 100 percent sex," says the dapper young man in Kabul's Macroryan neighborhood. "It was the first time I'd seen anything like that."

The prurient film - and the questionable programming being pumped to thousands across Kabul - prompted the Supreme Court chief justice to ask President Hamid Karzai to stop cable broadcasts during the holy season. Last month, a Council of Ministers banned virtually all cable broadcasts in the city. The minister of information and culture created an advisory committee to review the cable networks. Since then, the networks have begun to broadcast again.

Theback and forth between Afghanistan's deeply conservative judiciary and more liberal central government is part of a postwar process of winnowing down what is deemed acceptable for the culture at large to see. If un-Islamic content is defined too broadly, say some here, both the lasciviousness and more ennobling images like career-oriented women and pious non-Muslims will remain closed off to a population still sheltered by the effects of Taliban rule and centuries of tradition.

Yet there remains a widespread concern here about pushing too far too fast. After more than two decades of war, say officials and Kabul citizens, the society may not be ready to interpret correctly the values or concepts they suddenly see in movies from more carefree and stable societies like India and the West.

"The people of Afghanistan want to be like America or Germany overnight. They don't understand that it takes hundreds of years to become like them," says Asadullah Jahidi, a professor in the sharia law faculty at Kabul University. "To advance along Islamic lines takes time."

This is not the first time that cable content has raised the court's hackles. The bench had already decided early this year that cable networks should be banned, in part, say spokesmen, because no rules or regulations were set up by the Ministry of Information and Culture.

The ministry, however, says the media law of the country governs such issues; the cable networks continued to function.

Waheed Mozhdah, a spokesman for the Supreme Court, says the latest recommendation to ban cable came after it was rumored that a person had broken into an insecure network and broadcast a sex film. But not all ministers agreed with the resulting ban.

"I argued for the cable networks," says Sayed Mohammad Raheen, the minister of information and culture. "I was totally opposed to closing them. Many people thought all the stations were [guilty]. I knew all were not doing this."

Among the most popular and controversial features on cable are films produced by India's prolific movie industry. Bollywood has long been a mainstay here thanks to the similarities between the cultures and the fact that many people in Afghanistan understand Hindi and Urdu. But in recent years, Bollywood has abandoned many old taboos, allowing far more erotic scenes and songs than ever before - though the films rarely push beyond PG-13 Hollywood fare.