Political Satire Faces New Perils in Afghanistan
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.
If you're trying to gauge the health of a democracy, one place to look is the mass media. In Afghanistan, dozens of media outlets have sprung up since the fall of the Taliban, and Afghan journalists are saying just about anything they want especially about alleged government ineptitude and corruption. Those subjects also provide fodder for comedians. Now, officials are striking back. The Afghan Parliament is expected to pass a law that would make it a criminal offense to report on just about anything politicians don't want to hear.
NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has this story from Kabul.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: This type of parody is what makes Hanif Hum Ghum and his weekly political satire, Zange Khatar, or "Alarm Bell," popular with Afghan television viewers and hated by many Afghan politicians.
Mr. HANIF HUM GHUM (Afghan Comedian): (Speaking in Foreign Language)
NELSON: In a skit playing off Afghan anger toward Pakistan and its alleged role in the Taliban insurgency, the comedian introduces Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf at a mock news conference - except he changes the president's first name to Payal(ph), the name of the villain of a popular Indian soap opera. Pakistan is renamed Cherkiztan(ph) or dirty land.
Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking in Foreign Language)
NELSON: The insults mount. Musharraf's played by the comedian's cousin, Sayyad Nabifazi(ph), who wears a silk bathrobe and long tresses covered by a steel sultan helmet. He mumbles that he's received a phone call from Taliban leader Mullah Umar(ph). The fake Musharraf says the Taliban has assured him he is not in Pakistan. Comedian Hum Ghum points out that Umar's call came from Pakistan. In the end, the fake Musharraf confesses he's uttering baloney and shouldn't be believed.
Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking in Foreign Language)
NELSON: Saad Mohseni, director of Tolo Television that broadcasts "Alarm Bell," says the program demonstrates media freedom in post-Taliban Afghanistan.
Mr. SAAD MOHSENI (Director, Tolo Television): Every week, you know, we put something out and the fact that we get away with it is a great achievement for - not just for free press but also for Afghanistan. I think we've learned to laugh at ourselves. We've learned to criticize, but also, I mean, we, you know, "Zange Khatar," in a bizarre way, talks about issues that probably even the news cannot cover.
NELSON: Like the time "Alarm Bell" showed lawmakers sleeping in parliament or throwing water bottles at one another during a raucous session. When one lawmaker complained, cast member Fahzi(ph) said he told her he would be happy to broadcast similar clips the following evening.
Unidentified Man #3: (Through translator) The goal was to remind her why she was there, of her duty to the nation, of the reason she holds that position, that chair.
NELSON: Lawmaker Mohammad Daoud Kalkani(ph), one of those caught napping on tape, is not amused by "Alarm Bell" nor by mock raking(ph) journalists. Kalkani is backing a popular bill in parliament that could force cancellation of the show and lead to the arrest of any broadcaster or print journalist whose work is deemed offensive.
Unidentified Man #4: (Through translator) We have a saying: don't swing your hand so far that it would hurt someone. So in order to preserve our dignity, to protect people's rights and laws, we want to impose these limitations.
NELSON: Afghanistan's attorney general recently launched his own crackdown. This past Tuesday, dozens of police officers stormed the Tolo TV station and attacked staff members. One newscaster was arrested and later released. His crime: airing a news clip of that day's news conference by the attorney general, which the official felt did not accurately reflect what he'd said. Such developments worry Western officials here. Adrian Edwards, spokesman of the U.N. assistant's mission in Afghanistan:
Mr. ADRIAN EDWARDS (Spokesman, U.N. Assistant's Mission in Afghanistan): There are instances where journalists do go too far. Fact-based reporting has really yet to emerge as a sort of a strong phenomenon here. The lot of it is opinion-based and editorializing. Nonetheless, there is a lot of legitimate journalism.
NELSON: Edwards says Western officials have raised their concerns about the media crackdown with their Afghan counterparts. But, he says, in the end, it's their decision.
Mr. HUM GHUM: Tommy(ph), hurry up, please.
(Soundbite of phone ringing)
NELSON: Hum Ghum, who prepares for the next skit, is less magnanimous. He says he won't be bullied into stopping his show.
Mr. HANIF HUM GHUM: (Speaking in Foreign Language)
NELSON: He predicts if politicians keep looking for ways to scale back freedoms as they are doing with journalists, then Afghanistan will soon stop being a democracy.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul.