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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.

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While several channels are owned by warlords and powerful politicians, some argue that they are at least creating space for viewpoints not available before.

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"In the past, it wasn't possible to critique our leaders. During the first presidential election [in 2004], there were no private channels – just the national TV, which was pro-government," says Sidiqullah Towhidi, media commissioner of the Independent Election Commission.

Plus, the number of channels and the competition mean more news gets reported, he says. "In the past, we had to rely on international channels to know what was going on, but now the local media offer a greater level of depth."

Audiences aren't the only ones to benefit from the media explosion – as network staffs continue to grow, so do opportunities for female journalists. Women make up at least a third of most newsrooms.

Growing up as an Afghan refugee in Iran during the 1990s, Mina Khursand longed to become a presenter – like the women she saw on Iranian TV.

"There was resistance at first to having women in journalism, but my family are happy now, and I'm proud of my job," says the young woman, who works at the private Noor TV.

Journalists in Afghanistan still face many dangers. Reporters Without Borders said in its 2009 report that press freedom is on the decline in Afghanistan: While in 2007 five journalists were killed and 23 detained, according to Nai, from May 2008 to June 2009, two were killed, five were detained by the Taliban, and 45 held by the government. Twenty were shot at by unknown gunmen.

According to Mr. Towhidi, there are "two major problems facing journalists: one is the government and the other is the Taliban. The government withholds information from the media and in case journalists broadcast against the government, they face jail time and beating. The Taliban sometimes kill or kidnap journalists."

Reporters can also provoke the authorities' ire by talking to the Taliban for a story. Abdul Qadeer Mirzai, director of news at Ariana TV, recalls the time he sent a reporter to southern Musa Qala district, which was controlled by the Taliban. Upon his return, the reporter was interrogated by police for two days.

In comedy, though, it's the politicians who are the targets. And no fish are too large to fry. When former anti-Soviet resistance leader Sibhatullah Mujaddedi, a key power broker in Afghan politics, declared his support for President Karzai in June because, he explained, angels had told him to, a satirical show called Talak (Mouse Trap), which airs on the private channel Nooreen TV, devoted an entire episode to lampooning him.

"I was certain they had gone too far, and that the next day the station controller would end up in jail," says Fahim Dashty, chief editor of the Kabul Weekly.

In the end, nothing happened.