Afghan Rulers Plan to Smash TV Sets

UNITED NATIONS -- The Islamic Taliban movement, which rules most of Afghanistan, has given the people 15 days to get rid of their television sets or see them smashed by the religious police.

Videocassette recorders, videotapes and satellite dishes were also ordered to disappear by Afghanistan's minister for the prevention of vice and the promotion of virtue, who reports to the Ministry of Religion. The minister, Mohammed Qalamuddin, called television and video "the cause of corruption in this society."

The Taliban, a movement led by radical Islamic scholars in command of ranks of unsophisticated former students from austere religious schools, has been trying to isolate the population from television since it began capturing cities in 1996. The movement also banned audiotapes, films and most other forms of entertainment.

After the fall of Kabul, the capital, to the Taliban in September 1996, the national television center was closed. But the Taliban did not follow through on threats to confiscate videotapes or satellite dishes. Not many Afghans can afford satellite dishes, and there seems to be no information on how many still exist. Video players are more common, though still limited largely to the urban elite.

"The Taliban is killing urban communication," said Leonard Sussman, senior scholar in international communications at Freedom House.

Sussman, whose organization compiles an annual study of press freedom worldwide, says he classifies 19 of 186 countries as repressive in their control of information.

The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, wedged between India and China, also bans satellite dishes, on the ground that its distinctive culture could be quickly diluted. But the country plans to create its own television service and, in the meantime, allows video players. Video shops proliferate.

Other countries, including India and Vietnam, try to control access to the airwaves, but with dwindling zeal, since satellite television can be stopped, an Indian entrepreneur once said, "only by shooting down satellites."

Sussman said the Taliban's new rules appeared to be the harshest anywhere.

"It is really a reversion to a primitive life style," he said. "This is about the worst of the worst for one special reason: the others demand absolute control of the content of broadcasting. But no other country wipes out the delivery system."

Sussman said other countries that oppress the media strictly "are also going after the Internet for the very same reason, because it's so difficult to control." The Taliban movement has yet to pronounce on that means of communication, which is almost nonexistent in Afghanistan outside the offices of international agencies.

The United Nations and private relief organizations have satellite television and satellite telephone systems, but these have not been disturbed. Foreigners are also permitted to keep alcoholic beverages in their walled compounds.

But outside in the streets, the Taliban's rules apply, including dress codes, and although foreign women are not required to cover their faces as Afghan women are, they are expected to cover their heads, as they are in Iran.

The latest Taliban edict on television was announced Wednesday by the Shariat radio, an official network devoted largely to religion and moral education. The broadcast added that violators of the new ban on television would be punished in accordance with Islamic law, although punishments were not spelled out.

The announcement said the religious police, bearded zealots who cruise the streets in jeeps or pickups armed with automatic weapons, would begin conducting spot raids when the 15-day warning period elapsed. All television sets found will be smashed, the radio said.

Friday, July 10, 1998
Copyright 1998 The New York Times


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