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Afghanistan's answer to 'The Daily Show'?

As Aug. 20 election looms, news comedy programs on private networks poke fun at politicians – and call it like they see it.

By Issam Ahmed / correspondent / August 13, 2009

‘Hello, Taliban?’ An Afghan actor performs on a TV comedy called ‘Zang-e-Khatar’ (roughly, Danger Bell) broadcast from Kabul.

tolo tv/kaboora

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Kabul, Afghanistan

In a presidential election where some politicians have promised the moon, one straight-talking "candidate" is making waves for doing the opposite.

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"A vote for me is a vote to destroy your future," declares a barrel-chested, swivel-eyed hopeful known as "Bodrak" on a busy Kabul street. "If elected, I promise to serve myself first, then my relatives and friends, and then other people…. Votes from you mean foreign trips for us!"

Welcome to "Zang-e-Khatar" (Danger Bell), Afghanistan's answer to "The Daily Show," where everything from candidates running for president in Aug. 20 elections to government officials caught napping on the job to Kabul's problems with stray dogs comes under the comic scrutiny of Hanif Hangam and his cohosts.

The show is one of several satirical programs airing on Afghanistan's multitude of private television networks – and pushing the limits of political criticism – as the country experiences a media boom.

Satirical shows "are taking on all the major issues new shows aren't. Even in the presidential debates, the candidates were not truly pushed very hard or far in terms in terms examining their policies," says Haroun Mir, director of Afghanistan's Center for Research and Policy Studies. "Shows like 'Zang-e-Khatar' are able to pierce the traditional bounds of deference through the use of humor."

According to Saber Fahim of the media development nonprofit Nai, 500 registered publications, 10 newspapers, 90 FM stations, and 19 registered private television networks are now operating in Afghanistan – a remarkable achievement after years of Taliban rule that had shut down the news media.

In a country where illiteracy rates are as high as 70 percent, TV, which reaches some 50 percent of the population, can have a big impact. At the forefront of this media revolution are channels like Tolo TV (where Danger Bell is broadcast), operated by the Australian-Afghan Mohseni brothers, and the Ariana TV network.

Other popular shows on Tolo include "No Land" – a comedy featuring a corrupt governor and his farcically incompetent staff, and "The Candidate" – a reality show that gives ordinary people the chance to conceive presidential platforms and travel the country to "campaign."

Stations also host serious political discussions – and real politicians. On Ariana, there's the weekly "Debate" show, which has brought five of the 41 presidential candidates together for lively hour-long matchups. In July, Tolo held a debate with the two top rivals to incumbent President Hamid Karzai, who claimed the station would be biased against him.