In a presidential election where some politicians have promised the moon, one straight-talking "candidate" is making waves for doing the opposite.
"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.
While several channels are owned by warlords and powerful politicians, some argue that they are at least creating space for viewpoints not available before.
"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.
"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.
In the end, nothing happened.