Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
November 19, 2001
Afghan TV back on air after a five-year hiatus
The Taliban pulled the plug on the station.

At War With Terror

KABUL, Afghanistan - The transmitter was destroyed by an American air strike, and the Taliban burned the most objectionable videos in the station library. But last night, Afghan Television returned to the air, five years after it was switched off by the repressive Taliban regime.

"We will work to have an open culture, to openly receive Western culture, not deny it," station manager Shamsudin Hamid said in the first minute of the broadcast, greeting a television audience that until a week ago had to keep any TV sets under wraps to avoid the wrath of the Taliban's religious police.

By Afghan standards, the broadcast was provocative. The male news anchor was clean-shaven, having shorn himself of the scraggly beard that the Taliban forced men to wear. The female news anchor wore a scarf, not the full-body veil called a burqa that women were obliged to wear in public.

"For the past five years, the Taliban have destroyed the means of communication," said Hamid, who wore sunglasses and a four-day beard, giving him the unfortunate appearance of an underworld enforcer. "They threw us into a black hole of darkness."

Less than a week after the guerrillas of the Northern Alliance pushed into Kabul, the return of the national broadcaster is the most visible symbol that Afghanistan is restoring ties to the outside world and liberating itself from the constraints of the Taliban's tyrannical, rigid interpretation of Islam.

For the last five days, the station's engineers have raced to rebuild equipment that had sat unused in the studio. A spare low-wattage transmitter was found in the basement to replace the one U.S. bombers took out early in the air war to punish the Taliban regime for providing safe haven to Osama bin Laden.

"For three days people have been asking me when we're going to start broadcasting," said Mohammed Hashim Naize, a Pashtun newsreader who spent the last five years working for the state radio station. "I'm very excited."

For the moment, the station's signal reaches to the edge of the city, a distance of about five miles.

The fact that the Taliban did not destroy the station's equipment is curious.

The Taliban also did not get a lot of cooperation from the station staff, which took pride in a studio that was remarkably modern in the 1980s. The station staff neglected to point out its library of videotapes until the Taliban discovered them two years ago and began systematically watching and destroying the videos that did not meet its standards. Most of the 400 tapes the Taliban burned were of women and boys singing - impermissible behavior in the dour culture of the Taliban.

"All the people were against the Taliban," said Homayuon Rawi, the program director. "Two or three times the Taliban came to look at the station, but the staff resisted them."

Last night's programming schedule began with taped passages from the Koran sung by a blind mullah who was last popular 10 years ago.

That was followed by music videos of classic Afghan music, some more than a decade old. The music was followed by a Russian cartoon whose main character was a pig - not an animal seen frequently in Afghanistan.

Despite the promises to allow some Western culture into Afghanistan, it will likely only trickle in. Even with the Taliban gone, Afghanistan is a conservative culture - in pre-Taliban days Indian romance movies were shown, but the station blocked out images of kissing couples.

"We feel free," said Rawi, the program director, who was paid for the last five years even though he did no work. "We believe in freedom. But we won't break Islamic law."

Among the shows broadcast last night was a short segment of on-the-street interviews with people reflecting on their views about the dramatic change in Afghanistan's political order in the last week.

Some of the comments from the public were refreshingly uncensored for state-run television. A journalism student, speaking through her burqa, said she hoped the Northern Alliance troops recalled the anarchy they triggered when they entered the city in 1992, setting off a war that resulted with the Taliban's rise to power in 1996.

"I hope they remember their bitter past and don't repeat that again," she said. "For the first time in five years, people are laughing and smiling."

The nightly news itself seemed reluctant to step on toes - there were no items from Kunduz or Kandahar, where the Taliban is apparently making its last stands. The final item was a rant blaming Pakistan for all of Afghanistan's woes. There were no video images to accompany the stories.

Though the broadcast was the first local television offering since 1996, many Kabul residents have watched satellite television or videocassettes surreptitiously in defiance of the Taliban ban. Owners of satellite TVs kept their antennas covered during the day. One of the station engineers said he made extra money by repairing televisions at home at night.

In the last week, satellite dishes handcrafted out of hammered food tins have appeared on the streets in Kabul, and the price has doubled to $100 as demand has soared. home page   
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