Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
October 1, 2001
Tiny TV station broadcasts in defiance of Taliban rules
Its reach is limited, but what counts is its symbolism. 

At War With Terror

FEYZABAD, Afghanistan - The studios of TV Badakhshan are not exactly state of the art. An old video camera propped on a shelf is aimed at news anchor Abdul Wasill Hamidi, who sits in a broken wooden chair behind a rusting steel desk. There are no computer graphics behind him, just a frayed green curtain hiding a large crack in the wall.

But the station's mere existence is an act of defiance and hope in a country where modern technology and culture are outlawed.

After the Taliban took control of most of Afghanistan's cities five years ago, it banned television, radio and other forms of infidel entertainment. This tiny station in an opposition-held corner of the country is the only broadcast outlet still operating in a nation of 20 million people.

The television station is of great symbolic importance in Feyzabad, the capital of the Islamic State of Afghanistan, still recognized by the United Nations and most of the world as Afghanistan's official government although the Taliban fundamentalists control virtually all the major cities and most of the countryside.

Though its reach is not great in a medieval nation ripped apart by 23 years of civil war and where most people can't afford a television, TV Badakhshan is emblematic of the resistance of this ethnic Tajik area against the unyielding Taliban movement. (Badakhshan is the rebel-controlled province in which Feyzabad is located.)

Sometimes unveiled women newscasters appear on the government station reading the news or letters from viewers - revolutionary stuff since women in Taliban-controlled areas are not permitted to work or to appear without being cloaked from head to toe.

The station's operations are as patched together as the opposition Northern Alliance, the fragile coalition of ethnic and political groups that is hoping the American government's desire to retaliate against the Taliban and its guest, Osama bin Laden, will strengthen its weakened movement.

TV Badakhshan usually broadcasts for two hours every night, though the schedule varies depending on whether the city's small hydroelectric power plant is operating. Since the schedule is erratic, the start of the evening's programs is announced in town on a public loudspeaker.

The evening news lasts about 15 minutes, though that, too, is not rigidly enforced.

"If there is news, it takes 15 minutes," Hamidi said. "If no news, maybe eight minutes or 10 minutes."

Last night's big news story was a report on a memorial service for Ahmed Shah Massoud, the popular opposition military leader who was killed Sept. 9 by Taliban suicide bombers. There were no updates on reports about the U.S. military buildup to oust bin Laden from Afghanistan.

Reading a script handwritten on notebook paper, Hamidi spoke in a monotone while the camera held a 90-second shot of the audience at the memorial service sitting, arms crossed, and listening to an offscreen speaker.

After the news, TV Badakhshan typically airs a movie from the United States, Iran, Russia or India, with Persian dubbing. Often the Indian movies are syrupy love stories, but viewers in this war-ravaged land also seem to like action-adventure fare. The most recent American movie shown was Rambo: First Blood.

"Of course people are tired of the war, but they like these films," said Mohammed Tahir Mustazki, who has worked at the station for 14 years.

Situated on a hillside overlooking Feyzabad, the station's signal does not go much farther than the steep granite valley in which the capital rests. Nobody is quite sure how many viewers watch; the most recent survey done in 1991 indicated there were 5,000 televisions in town.

The broadcasters seem baffled by questions about whether the public treats them like stars - the concept of television celebrities is foreign here.

They are widely recognized when they walk down the capital's stony dirt streets, where pedestrians and cars have to negotiate around open sewers. But people are no longer excited when they see them.

"Television is not something new for these people," said Mustazki, whose salary is about $10 a month. "Of course people were excited when we first started broadcasting, but we've been on the air since 1986."

TV Badakhshan is virtually the only source of news in this isolated region. A few people here have satellite television receivers, but for the rest, the only news from the outside world arrives via foreign shortwave stations such as the Voice of America or the BBC.

The beleaguered government once had an FM radio station, but its ancient Czech transmitter died several years ago and no spare parts were available to fix it.

The Chinese government recently donated two shortwave transmitters, which are scheduled to arrive in the next month.

But until the new machines arrive, the only broadcast outlet in Afghanistan remains TV Badakhshan, where a poster on the wall written in Persian states: "To rebuild our country begins with culture." home page   
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