Reporters Without Borders today called on President Hamid Karzai to take a clear and definitive public stance in support of cable television and diversity in the broadcast media in response to a new wave of pressure from conservatives, especially the Ulema Council led by supreme court president Fazl Hadi Shinwari, for a ban on "anti-Islamic" TV stations.
The press freedom organization said it feared that the democratically-elected president would be swayed by supreme court judges whose legitimacy is widely challenged.
"It is up to the public to decide about TV programmes," Reporters Without Borders said in a letter to President Karzai. "It is certainly not up to the government to say what is good and bad. Such a censorial attitude runs counter to Afghanistan’s constitution and its press law."
The Ulema Council asked the government on 13 March to make the country’s state and privately-owned TV stations stop broadcasting "immoral and anti-Islamic" programmes. Around 100 of the council’s members meeting in Kabul singled out the only privately-owned broadcast station, Tolo TV, for criticism.
One representative of the Council told Pajhwok Afghan News agency: "We have decided this in accordance with the constitution and we have also called for a ban on telecasts which have dances as this is absolutely contrary to the Sharia." Article 3 of the constitution says no law can be contrary to the Sharia, while article 34 protects freedom of expression.
Those in charge of the targeted TV stations have denied broadcasting anti-Islamic programmes. The head of Tolo TV said the mullahs were voicing "personal" views. He criticised the actions of a programme control Commission set up in November which summoned him on 16 February and asked him to change a musical programme and to replace a presenter. The commission’s members also said some of Tolo TV’s journalists were not "respectable."
The current wave of conservative pressure follows an earlier campaign which led to a temporary ban on cable TV at the end of 2004 and the commission’s creation.
The information minister asked the directors of state and privately-owned TV stations on 7 November to stop broadcasting "Islamically incorrect" programmes, especially Indian and western films showing unveiled women behaving in a way that would shock Afghans. The next day, the cabinet decided at a meeting chaired by President Karzai to ban cable TV and threatened to withdraw Tolo TV’s licence if it was established that it was broadcasting programmes contrary to Islam and Afghan culture.
The supreme court’s conservative judges waged a campaign against cable TV during Ramadan and Shinwari, the supreme court president, ordered the closure of 10 cable operators on 10 November.
But at the same time, the information minister announced that President Karzai had agreed to the creation of a commission to evaluate the TV stations’ programmes and to authorise those that did not broadcast anti-Islamic and immoral films and songs to resume operating.
The commission reached its decision on 23 November. The cable TV operators were allowed to resume operating, but they had to drop 10 foreign stations from the selection of stations they offered, especially those with Indian and western films.
Tolo TV is Afghanistan’s first and only privately-owned broadcast station. Launched by the Australian-Afghan media group Moby Capital Partners, it has distinguished itself by broadcasting western films such as "The Ten Commandments" and music videos of performers such as Madonna. The same group also transformed radio by launching the first commercial radio station, Arman FM, which in just a few months became Kabul’s most popular station.
Back in January 2003, the supreme court banned cable TV throughout Afghanistan, but new cable TV licences were issued in May of the same year after the government drew up a programme code and a list of permitted TV stations.