Naureen Aqueel

Television in Afghanistan: Beaming through the curbs

Posted on: June 7, 2010

Published in South Asia magazine, June 2010.

Television in Afghanistan has taken a big leap forward and there are reasons to believe that it has a bright future ahead. It was viewed with suspicion before and it still is by some. Television in Afghanistan has managed to make its mark in a country that has been devastated by years of conflict and war, with an economy and infrastructure that place it among the poorest countries of the world.

Afghanistan depends on international aid for 90 per cent of its expenditure, with approximately 53 per cent of its population living below the poverty line. Yet, television has managed to touch the lives of many people.

A study of Afghanistan’s five urban provinces in 2007 found that about two-thirds of the population watched television every day or almost every day. From virtual scratch that broadcasters started in 2001 to the new array of channels and programs that the country boast of today, television in Afghanistan is no doubt a phenomenal development. Official figures in 2009 showed that there were 16 broadcast channels in the country, including one state-run and 15 private channels.

The television channels operating within the country provide a variety of programs for their audiences. Afghans have the opportunity to choose between cooking shows, reality shows, news, cartoons, crime shows, Turkish soap opera, Iranian drama and the popular Indian soaps that have managed to attract a great following even in this conservative Muslim society. Many foreign programs are dubbed in the local language.

The content of these channels comprises a mix of locally produced programs as well as foreign recorded ones. Indian music, films and soaps are the most popular. Viewers usually settle down after 7:30 pm to watch the stories of conniving female protagonists of Indian soaps in saris and clothes considered to be immodest in Afghan culture.

But here is where the restrictions step in. According to official censorship policies, Afghan television channels are not allowed to show immodestly clad females. But since Indian soaps are the top-rated programs, broadcasters have worked out a crude yet practical method to get around the government restrictions without taking these most watched shows entirely off air – they employ pixilators whose job is to add a blotchy strip of camouflage to obscure bare arms, midriffs and legs.

There remain, however, television channels that ignore government restrictions and have drawn the ire of the authorities as well as religious elements who view foreign as well as some locally produced shows as contravening religious, cultural and social norms. Media freedom bodies and many media organizations themselves complain that in Afghanistan media continues to be “under the government’s thumb.”

Nonetheless, the current state of the television industry in Afghanistan is indeed a big leap from the days of the Taliban when, according to reports in the Western media, even owning a television was a crime.

A particularly commendable initiative in Afghan television is the reality show “Fikar wa Talash” (Dream and Achieve) in which contestants pitch in business ideas before a panel of judges and get cash rewards to start their own business if they win. By encouraging Afghans to start their own businesses, the show contributes positively to country’s economy and society.

The mushrooming of television channels in Afghanistan, in addition to providing locals an escape outlet from the monotonous drudgeries of everyday life, has also contributed to this underdeveloped economy. Advertising revenue has started coming in and new job opportunities have sprung up. There is no doubt that international investors are also eyeing the opportunity to jump into this lucrative market.

Media owners in Afghanistan must focus on creating a lasting media in the country that serves a constructive role by contributing positively to the society and offering more than just frivolous content.

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