KABUL, Afghanistan - Almost every night, Mojtaban Ahmadi rebels against his government by merely turning on his TV.
He watches a soap opera from India about the long-suffering Tulsi, a poor girl who married into a rich family and is the central character in the most popular of five Indian soap operas the Afghan government is trying to ban as un-Islamic. Critics say the move is one of several recent government actions that evoke the harsh restrictions of the Taliban, driven from power in late 2001.
“I don’t think anyone’s not watching Tulsi, except a few clerics,” said Ahmadi, 18, a store clerk. “I’m a Muslim. I pray. I watch this for entertainment. Some people might sit around and have nothing to do and think, `Let’s go rob something.’ But not if they watch Tulsi.”
On April 22, the Ministry of Information and Culture banned the shows, saying they showed too much skin, too much immorality, and, in one case, too much magic. Two stations stopped broadcasting the serials. The other two private TV stations, Tolo and Afghan TV, have continued to run the soaps, and the country’s attorney general has summoned the station owners to court.
Since the fall of the Taliban, which outlawed TV sets and photography, media have flourished in Afghanistan, and media freedom is seen as one of the government’s crowning achievements. Most Afghans in Kabul can see the city’s 13 private stations, which run the gamut from those broadcasting American TV shows to channels featuring clerics proclaiming “Death to America.”
The dilemma over the Indian soaps highlights the contradiction in Afghanistan’s fledgling constitution, which enshrines freedom of speech but also says that nothing un-Islamic is allowed.
It also puts U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai in a bind as he continues to lose popularity before next year’s election. If he rejects the ban, he risks alienating Afghanistan’s largely conservative public and giving Taliban-led insurgents fodder for anti-government propaganda. If he supports the ban, he risks alienating his Western supporters.
So far, Karzai has indicated he supports the ban and the influential conservative clerics who pushed it. In his one public comment, he said media freedom would be maintained but added that “unsuitable material should not be broadcast.” He also complained that there were too many foreign shows on TV.
Other government officials have defended the ban on soap operas as an attempt to preserve Afghan culture. Abdul Karim Khurram, the minister of culture and information who pushed the ban, also blamed the TV channels for giving ammunition to extremists.
“I think allowing these things will give the Taliban an excuse,” Khurram said, adding that the Taliban in northwestern Baghdis province has already used the Indian soaps in anti-government propaganda.
Two weeks ago, dozens of masked, armed militants stormed into several mosques in Logar province, just outside Kabul, and warned residents against watching television because TV channels were showing un-Islamic programs.
Tulsi, the main character in the most popular soap, officially called “Because the Mother-in-Law was once the Daughter-in-Law,” and aired on Tolo, has certainly met with her share of un-Islamic adversity. Her husband fathered a child with another woman while he had amnesia. Tulsi herself nearly got married to another man twice - once when she was out of her mind and once when she thought her husband was dead.
Another Indian soap opera features a woman with more than one husband. But considering what else is on TV in Afghanistan, the ban seems arbitrary. American shows such as “Lost” and “24” are broadcast, along with movies such as “Mission: Impossible III” and “The Matrix Reloaded.”
Ahmad Shah Afghanzai, the founder of Afghan TV, conceded that 90 percent of the shows on his station would be interpreted by conservative clerics as un-Islamic. He said he was giving Afghans what they want.
“This is just the first step by the government,” Afghanzai said. “If we do not resist, if we do not shout to the world against this ban, the next day they will say another program is illegal, and the day after that they will say another show is bad. And then they will ban channels, until all that is left are those channels that shout `Death to America.’”
Conservative lawmakers said banning soap operas is the first step in their plan to clean up Kabul. Earlier this year, a group of Islamist parliamentarians drafted a bill that would outlaw such activities as women walking outside without a male relative, and men growing long hair and playing with pigeons. Last month, Kabul police raided several billiard halls, confiscating their snooker cues and balls and arresting the players because of allegations of drinking, fighting and gambling. The city’s billiards clubs were shuttered for 10 days.
Conservative parliament members and government officials such as Khurram also said they want TV channels to stop showing women and men singing and dancing together. They also wanted to prevent provocative movies from being aired.
“This is no different from the Taliban,” said Mojib Rahman, 19, who sat beside a road with two friends recently and complained that there was nothing else to do in Kabul. Journalists say the ban on soap operas is aimed at softening media criticism in the run-up to the presidential election next year.
“If they manage to ban all the Indian soap operas, what will they do if there’s something else they don’t like on TV?” asked Ahmad Behzad, a journalist and parliament member who fought the soap-opera ban. “Or if the news is critical of them? They can make a religious excuse or anything to ban it.”
Khurram, the information minister, dismissed fears that the ministry would go after news programs or push a political agenda.
But Khurram, known for his bluntness and for once telling a parliament member that he was worth less than a chickpea, also complained about Tolo TV’s news coverage, including a clip repeatedly aired of him in which he says freedom of speech is useless. He said his words were twisted.
On May 7, after a news announcer for state-run TV was shown defending press freedom in a round-table discussion on Tolo, government security agents escorted him from the station.
Announcer Faizi Zadran said the guards told him the minister had ordered that he no longer announce the 8 p.m. news. He still has a job, but he’s not sure for how long.
“I don’t know why they did it,” Zadran said. “I have not said anything against the law. I have not defamed anyone. I have just defended freedom of speech.”