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Foreign Policy, September 24, 2010

Warlord TV

But overt political propaganda is hardly the only problem with Afghan TV

By Katherine Brown, Tom Glaisyer

When Afghanistan's powerbrokers own the networks, they control what's on the air. The result: documentaries of Dostum chasing Taliban fighters across northern Afghanistan on horseback.

On Thursday nights, when Afghan Star, a popular American Idol-like talent show, is on TV, the streets of Kabul are noticeably quieter. Even in a land torn apart by fighting and where people consume less energy per person than in any other country, somehow 65 local television stations still manage to beam programming to captivated viewers in Afghanistan's larger cities. In Kabul, for instance, eight in 10 people have television access, and more than 20 stations are on the air. Not every household has its own television set, though, and so TV-watching is often a communal activity, as small groups of people sit in barber shops and bakeries, and outside electronics stores, watching flickering screens.

Freedom of speech is enshrined in Afghanistan's 2004 constitution, yet this year Freedom House graded the Afghan media as "not free" -- ranking it 165 out of 196 countries. Earlier this month, Sayed Hamid Noori, vice president of Afghanistan's Association of Independent Journalists, was found dead outside his home with multiple stab wounds. Since 2001, 27 journalists (12 of them foreigners) have been killed in Afghanistan, according to the media-monitoring group Nai. There is an impressive and growing breed of professional Afghan journalists, but because they face intimidation from insurgents, warlords, drug lords, and government officials who demand positive coverage, the level of self-censorship is extremely high; understandably, local reporters are hesitant to broach controversial subjects.
Foreign Policy, Sep. 24, 2010

Foreign comedies and drama are popular. In addition to Afghan Star, some stations run hit Iranian movies and Indian soap operas. One Afghan television station, Emrooz ("Today"), until recently aired surprisingly liberal shows geared toward younger viewers, including a program called Come and See, which mocked mullahs and fortunetellers, and Afghan Model, a hybrid fashion show and beauty pageant where men and woman paraded down the catwalk, albeit in conservative fashions and with the women's hair fully covered. (For such programming, the network incurred the wrath of Afghanistan's Council of Ministers, which in late July ordered the station to temporarily shutter for allegedly "fomenting religious differences and disrupting national unity.")

Most entertainment shows on Afghan TV are, if not literally produced elsewhere (like Indian soap operas), then adaptations of formats from abroad (like Afghan Star). But Afghanistan does have its own unique form of television entertainment, albeit not one the rest of the world should necessarily want to copy: Warlord TV.

"You can't be a self-respecting warlord these days," one Afghan journalist told us recently in Kabul, "and not have your own television station." Because there's obviously not a lot of money in the advertising business in Afghanistan, much of the funding for stations comes from the government, foreign donors, and private owners. It's really no surprise, then, that several prominent Afghan political mavericks are funding their own television networks -- including some of the country's most notorious power brokers.

For instance, Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former president and now head of the Islamic Society of Afghanistan and the opposition coalition, the Afghanistan National Front, owns the Noor ("Light") network. His station airs an evening talk show called End of the Line, featuring guests who mostly call in to complain about his political rival, President Hamid Karzai.

While Rabbani's station helps him criticize his opponent, Abdul Qader Dostum's station, Aina ("Mirror"), helps keep his brother, Abdul Rashid Dostum in the spotlight. The latter Dostum is an ethnic Uzbek leader who fought with the Soviets in the 1980s before switching sides to join the mujahideen; he was a general in the Afghan Army before being removed from his post following scandal in 2008, and then reinstated by Karzai in 2009. In short, he has been at the periphery of several waves of Afghan history, but never at the center. Now his 9-year-old television station, Aina, airs Turkish and Central Asian music videos as well as political programs with a pro-Dostum slant -- including documentaries of the warlord's dashing military exploits. Viewers can watch hours of archival footage of Dostum chasing Taliban fighters across northern Afghanistan on horseback or playing buzkashi (Afghanistan's version of polo, played with a goat's carcass instead of a ball) on his stallions.

Or take Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq's network, Rah-e-Farda, which means "Future Path." Mohaqiq is another former mujahideen leader and now an MP in the Afghan parliament. He is a well-known advocate for the rights of the Hazara, an oft-persecuted Shiite minority ethnicity. Rah-e Farda's line-up is stacked with sports, religious, and political programs such as Rawzana ("Beacon") and Tarjoman-e Seyasi ("Political Interpreter") that feature mainly political talk. The star of the channel, however, is Mohaqeq; clips of his recent speeches and his glorious past battlefield encounters with Taliban fighters are often featured.

It's true that action shots and scenes of daring-do are a staple of networks anywhere -- but usually the protagonists aren't also the owners of the television stations. Suffice it to say, New York's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, makes no such appearances on horseback on his financial network, Bloomberg TV.

But overt political propaganda is hardly the only problem with Afghan TV. What's worse is what doesn't make it on the air at all. Freedom of speech is enshrined in Afghanistan's 2004 constitution, yet this year Freedom House graded the Afghan media as "not free" -- ranking it 165 out of 196 countries. Earlier this month, Sayed Hamid Noori, vice president of Afghanistan's Association of Independent Journalists, was found dead outside his home with multiple stab wounds. Since 2001, 27 journalists (12 of them foreigners) have been killed in Afghanistan, according to the media-monitoring group Nai. There is an impressive and growing breed of professional Afghan journalists, but because they face intimidation from insurgents, warlords, drug lords, and government officials who demand positive coverage, the level of self-censorship is extremely high; understandably, local reporters are hesitant to broach controversial subjects.

Some observers herald the sheer number of television and radio stations in Afghanistan today as a victory. A 2008 report by the U.S. Institute of Peace noted hopefully that, "The development of media in post-Taliban Afghanistan has been relatively successful ... in establishing free and responsible expression." The quantity of networks on air is indeed remarkable given the impoverished state of the country's infrastructure, yet numbers tell only part of the story. It's time to start paying attention to what's actually on Afghanistan's airwaves -- and what isn't.

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