RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
If religious officials have their way there's one more basic thing Afghans may have to do without - their favorite soap operas. Afghans, especially in the cities where television is now everywhere, are hooked on soaps. The problem is the shows come from India, and in the eyes of conservative religious clerics some are a little too hot for family fare. Under pressure from the powerful clerics council, the ministry of information and culture has banned them from the airwaves. Some networks are resisting the ban, including Kabul-based Tolo TV. Saad Mohseni is one of the founders of Tolo TV and he joins us to talk about that.
Mr. SAAD MOHSENI (Founder, Tolo TV): Good morning.
MONTAGNE: Now, you are still airing the soap operas at this point, are you not?
Mr. MOHSENI: That's correct. Yes. We felt that media freedom, which has been enshrined in our constitution, allows us to do so. And the government's manipulation of the media for political gains as shrouded under the banner of Islam is unacceptable to us. And we believe that we have every right to continue airing these shows, which are very popular with the public. And if the government is unhappy with our decision they can certainly take us to court and we'll be happy to defend out decision in the court of law.
MONTAGNE: Tell us about the soap operas, though. Give us an example. I mean, there's one called "Because the Mother-in-Law was once the Daughter-in-Law."
Mr. MOHSENI: Yes. It's a story of this young lady who marries into this Indian family and the problems of the - with the in-laws or the sister-in-laws and, you know, something you would expect in any soap opera. She thinks her husband's dead and she goes and marries someone else and the husband reemerges.
But there's nothing really that controversial. It's very tame. There's no dancing. There's no flesh. Even some of the requests that the government made earlier in relation to Hindu idols we've pixilated footage of idols. And when there is a little bit of flesh like a shoulder or a stomach we take those out as well. So we certainly take into account people's sensitivities.
MONTAGNE: Although, you know, by Afghan standards a husband reemerging after his wife has married someone else that could be offensive to very strict, conservative households.
Mr. MOHSENI: Well, I mean to be honest with you, I mean, don't forget Afghans have been exposed to Bollywood-type drama, which is much more risqué. You know, these shows are exceptionally popular.
But you also have to bear in mind that people's existence - I mean, it's a pretty miserable existence in Afghanistan. There's not a (unintelligible). Security's not good and especially of late. Commodity prices have jumped up -rice in particular. People need to escape. And for them it allows them to just get away from things even for an hour or half an hour every single day.
MONTAGNE: Just very quickly. President Karzai said earlier this week, we believe in freedom of speech, but like many countries we want our TV programs to be inside the framework of our culture and be acceptable to the Afghan people. Does that suggest to you that he's not going to allow the shows to go on?
Mr. MOHSENI: Well, I'm not sure what the president's thinking, because in that statement he also said that we support freedom of expression. So, you know, he may have had two statements for two different audiences. One for the outside, that he supports freedom of expression. One for the domestic audience to say that, well, you know, it's an election year. Maybe I'm going to play a little bit tough and hopeful I can please some of the more ideological members of my constituency.
MONTAGNE: And in the meantime your soap operas will go on?
Mr. MOHSENI: Well, I think it's important for them to go on. I mean, what the government doesn't realize is how important it is to keep people occupied. I mean, if you take these types of shows away from people, god knows what's going to be next. I mean, you have seen the draft legislation that's before parliament today banning all sorts of things, from long hair to makeup, to men and women mingling in public. You know, this will not be the end of it. Video clips will be next. Other types of shows and formats will also go. And I'm certain that they will ban females from singing. This is something a little more sinister than it appears.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.
Mr. MOHSENI: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: Saad Mohseni is one of the founders of Tolo TV in Afghanistan.
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