Afghan culture war looms
A recently banned Indian soap opera shown in Afghanistan
reflects the growing clash of cultures within the country's borders and the
struggle over freedom of speech, writes Deirdre Tynan for EurasiaNet.
Deirdre Tynan for EurasiaNet (13/05/08)
battlefields of southern and eastern Afghanistan, Islamic insurgents are
struggling to persevere in the face of the formidable firepower of NATO and
American forces. In the country's culture war, however, religious radicals are
poised to achieve a spectacular victory, according to two self-styled free
are seeing is the re-Talibanization [of Afghanistan] [...] by stealth,"
said Saad Mohseni, whose family controls the Moby Media Group, the operator of
independent television and radio stations in Afghanistan. "Socially and
culturally, they seem to be achieving their goals."
controversy involving two Indian-made drama series broadcast on one of the Moby
group's television stations is developing into a key test for Afghanistan's
democratization process. Religious radicals, many of them from the southern
Pashtun belt that is oriented toward Pakistan, are bitterly opposed to the
Indian dramas, even though they are hugely popular – with as many as one out of
every three Afghans tuning in every week.
Karzai's government is bowing to the pressure exerted by the
ultra-conservatives, and, in turn, the Ministry of Information and Culture is
calling on Moby to pull the plug on the shows, contending that the "un-Islamic"
soap operas are offensive to Afghan sensibilities. The Moby executives dispute
the Culture Ministry's assertion, citing the fact that 90 percent of television
sets in the country tune into the programs when they are on.
along with his brother Jahid, also a director of the media group, have been
touring the United States
to draw attention to the free-speech crisis. In New York, recently, the duo said the culture
clash between advocates of civil society and the country's radical conservative
element was reaching "a dangerous stage."
The problem from
the Mohsenis' perspective is two-pronged: According to Saad Mohseni, "a
small group of individuals has hijacked the system," and the determined
action by zealots has, in turn, exposed a serious flaw in the country's nascent
republican system of government. "There doesn't seem to be a system of
checks and controls on government actions," he said. "There's no
[government] leadership on this issue."
taking an active role in the debate, the radicals have been able to gain the
initiative. "The voice of reason always tends to be drowned out by
radicals," Jahid Mohseni added.
brothers have vowed that Moby media, via its Tolo TV channel, will continue
broadcasting the Indian dramas – "Tulsi" and "Kasauti Zindagi
Kay" – until the government can provide a legal basis for the Culture
Ministry's ban. They suggest the complacency exhibited by the president on the
issue is connected to a desire to weaken independent media outlets in advance
of the 2009 general election, as well to mollify hard-line elements within the
government. The Mohseni brothers also noted that several top presidential aides
and advisers have ties to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who led a CIA-financed,
ultra-conservative militia during the war of resistance against Soviet
occupation, and who subsequently was branded an international terrorist by the
Tolo TV, and
more broadly the Moby Media Group, is no stranger to controversy having
produced an Afghan "Pop Idol" featuring both male and female
performers, topical talk shows and news programs that have been recognized
internationally for their quality and professionalism. Moby, with its two
television channels, controls roughly 70 percent of Afghanistan's broadcast market
share, along with a 60 percent market share for its radio stations. The group's
media dominance makes it a natural target for other groups, and the
political-business forces behind them, that are seeking to capture a larger
audience for themselves.
brothers insist that the media group has taken care to ensure all programming
is culturally sensitive. "They've banned the serials without any thought,
but we've been editing them and pixelating certain scenes right from the get
go," Jahid Mohseni said in an interview with EurasiaNet. "The shows
are very conservative. There's nothing in them that we believe is contrary to
Islam. If they are going to ban Indian serials, they should ban all Indian
serials, not just one or two."
remains open to working with the Culture Ministry to address official
complaints. But authorities have yet to specify their gripes, the Mohseni
brothers assert. "If the Ministry has it all figured out and it's a legal
issue, tell us what the problem is. They are fully dubbed shows, so we can edit
them. If it's an issue with the story line, we might be able to fix that too.
From our point of view it's got nothing to do with an actual problem with
Islam, it's about harassing free media," Jahid Mohseni said.
a senior media analyst with Freedom House who oversaw the production of this
year's Freedom of the Press index, agrees with the Mohsenis' assessment of the
dispute. "The ban is part of a larger attempt to undermine freedom of
expression," Karlekar said.
particularly worrying because we had seen positive changes Afghanistan
recently," Karlekar continued. "Commentators have pointed out that
some factions of the government maybe trying to deal with the Taliban, and are
catering to more conservative trends. I would definitely not rule out linking
this to elections."
National Journalists Union and Nai, an Afghan media development organization
with significant media law expertise, have both called on the government to
back away from meddling with programming. "If such actions continue, this
will signal Afghanistan's
legislative powers are starting to engage in censorship," said Nai
Executive Director Mujeeb Khalwatgar. "This is not appropriate for a
government which claims it is working to promote democracy."
said the advocates of civil society could not afford to be complacent. Perhaps
the only way to get the Culture Ministry to reverse its ban would be to
pressure on Karzai personally, and the only way to do that effectively is to
have such pressure come directly from the Bush administration, he said.
"The Afghan government is in a defiant mood," Saad Mohseni said,
adding that future assistance to Afghanistan's reconstruction should
be conditioned on the Karzai administration's upholding basic civil society
"We have to
be proactive," Saad Mohseni said. "The outcome [of the failure to
take a forceful stand] would be an Afghan government that resembles Taliban