Afghan ministry in a lather over Indian soaps

KABUL (Reuters) - Faced with defiant television stations ignoring its ban on showing Indian soap operas, Afghanistan’s culture ministry on Wednesday issued a third deadline to stop airing the shows which it says are un-Islamic.

Afghan children watch the Indian family series called 'Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi' at a guest house in Kabul, Afghanistan May 25, 2006.

The row between the Islamist-led culture ministry and the privately run television stations reflects the tension within Afghan society between traditional conservative Islam and more liberal foreign values.

Afghanistan’s most popular television station, Tolo, and the smaller Afghan TV, both privately owned, defied the ministry’s previous Tuesday deadline and continued to show their highly popular Indian soap operas on Wednesday.

Two other stations, Ariana and Noorin, complied with the ministry’s previous two bans and pulled their soaps off the air.

The Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture issued a “final warning” to Tolo and Afghan TV to stop broadcasting the Indian soaps by April 29, “otherwise they will be referred to the judiciary,” it said.

Conservative Muslim clerics launched a campaign last year to stop the Indian soaps operas, branding them as immoral and against Islamic culture.

They object to men and women being shown together, “immodestly” dressed women, the worship of Hindu idols and the staple soap opera plots of tangled love lives and infidelity.

The channels have made concessions, cutting scenes of Hindu worship and blurring naked arms and midriffs exposed by saris.

Afghan media law backs freedom of speech, but the constitution forbids publication of material “contrary to the principles of Islam.”

“The common consensus was that we need to continue broadcasting and the call for a ban from the ministry is illegal,” Jahid Mohseni, a director of the company which owns Tolo, told Reuters after a meeting with the journalists’ union.

Traffic in the crowded capital Kabul eases each evening and the streets empty as Afghans scurry home to watch their favorite soap operas; the glamorous lives of the Indian elite a welcome escape for many in a country that has seen 30 years of civil war.

“The ministry’s view is completely out of touch with the general public,” Mohseni said.

President Hamid Karzai has always backed freedom of expression, but faced with the conservative backlash of leading clerics and some of his own ministers, has avoided taking sides, saying only that television should respect Islamic values.

Editing by Alex Richardson