- The Washington Times - Friday, November 12, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan — Western pop videos, India’s Bollywood movies and even Charlton Heston’s “The Ten Commandments” have Afghanistan’s fledgling cable-TV stations in hot water.

An appeal from the country’s top Islamic judge this week prompted the Cabinet to order television networks temporarily off the air — just three years after a Taliban ban on TV was lifted.

The spat is the latest in the battle for control of Afghan society between still-influential Islamic fundamentalists and entrepreneurs enjoying new freedoms.

“The consequences are disastrous for Afghanistan,” Saad Mohseni, director of Tolo TV, said Thursday. He predicted more restrictions would follow.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Fazl Hadi Shinwari appealed to President Hamid Karzai during Ramadan to shut down TV programming, and the Cabinet did so, at least until new regulations are drawn up.

It was a victory for Chief Justice Shinwari, who was on the losing side in January, when the government ignored his protests at the return of veiled female singers to state television screens.

The ban had originated with Islamic fundamentalists who ruled in the early 1990s and was lifted only when the repressive Taliban regime fell.

A screening last week of the “The Ten Commandments” starring Mr. Heston provided ammunition for the Islamic hard-liners.

“It showed the prophet Moses with short trousers and among the girls,” Wahid Mujdah, a Supreme Court spokesman, said. “He’s a very holy person and Islam respects him. This is wrong.”

Mr. Mohseni, director of Tolo TV, a new Afghan channel that showed the biblical epic, said the situation epitomized the threat to free speech in a country championed by the United States as a model for the region.

He accused officials of trying to silence increasingly sophisticated media coverage of Afghan politics.

“Ministers will come and go, but the free media should be here to stay to serve the nation and its public,” he said. “This is a time for people to take a stand.”

In the political jockeying for positions in Mr. Karzai’s new government after his victory in Afghanistan’s landmark Oct. 9 election, the reformers lost their champion. Culture Minister Makhdom Raheen fought for the TV stations in January, but is accused of switching his views to try to salvage his post as Mr. Karzai ponders his new team.

Mr. Mujdah, the Supreme Court spokesman, made plain that the hard-liners’ main targets are the Indian films hugely popular with young Afghans for their raunchy dance routines.

“Immoral” movies were even blamed for the recent fatal stabbing of a student at Kabul University, which has led to street protests in the capital.

“The boys are disturbing the girls in these films. Then there are the gangs fighting each other. All these things are against Afghan culture,” Mr. Mujdah said.

Mohammed Hashem Pakzad, the owner of Ariana, one of about 20 cable operators in Kabul, said he read about the new ban in the newspaper and stopped transmitting for fear that the police — “in a bad mood” — might smash up his office.

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