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Cablegate: Tolo Uses Programming to Push for Social Change;

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OO RUEHIK RUEHPW RUEHYG
DE RUEHBUL #0911/01 1071114
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
O 161114Z APR 08
FM AMEMBASSY KABUL
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 3586
INFO RUCNAFG/AFGHANISTAN COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RHEHAAA/NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RHEFDIA/DIA WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RUEKJCS/OSD WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RUEKJCS/SECDEF WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RUEKJCS/JOINT STAFF WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RHMFIUU/HQ USCENTCOM MACDILL AFB FL PRIORITY

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 KABUL 000911

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STATE PASS TO USAID FOR AID/ANE, AID/DCHA/DG
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E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV AF
SUBJECT: TOLO USES PROGRAMMING TO PUSH FOR SOCIAL CHANGE;
CONSERVATIVES AND POLITICIANS REACT

Summary

1. (SBU) Afghan conservatives and politicians anxious to
burnish their Islamic credentials in the run-up to elections
have reacted to TOLO television programs which test the
limits of traditional Afghan norms. TOLO's recent broadcast
of conservatively dressed men and women dancing together
during the Afghan version of the Academy Awards drew a strong
reaction from powerful Islamic conservatives and their
informal demand for a ban on broadcasts of women singing or
dancing with men, but no action. TOLO director Saad Mosheni
describes his station as a vehicle for social change and
claims high viewership. Cultural and political cross
currents during the lead up to the presidential and
parliamentary elections will raise the stakes and sharpen the
rhetoric in this debate. Even moderates, including President
Karzai, are looking for a way to affirm their support for
press freedoms without offending powerful conservative
interests. End Summary.

Conservative Lawmakers Object to TOLO Programming

2. (SBU) In the National Assembly March 31, conservative MPs
vociferously protested the dancing shown during the Academy
Awards telecast and railed against the continued broadcast of
Indian soap operas. During the debate, lower house member
and former warlord Ustad Abdurab Rasoul Sayyaf interpreted
articles one, two, and three of the constitution as calling
for the active defense of Islam. He said, "Our constitution
bans anything that contradicts Islam and we have all sworn on
the Quran that we will protect Islam. What is forbidden is
forbidden." (Articles one, two, and three state: 1)
Afghanistan shall be an Islamic Republic, independent,
unitary and indivisible state; 2) The sacred religion of
Islam is the religion of the Islamic Republic of
Afghanistan...; and 3) No law shall contravene the tenets and
provisions of the holy religion of Islam in Afghanistan.)
Not all MPs agreed. When Sayyaf called for a ban on foreign
women dancers on television, reformer Shukria Barakzai
challenged him to show the same concern for the young male
dancers who are frequently used as entertainment at all-male
parties. The heated discussion ended with conservatives
demanding a ban on broadcasts of women singers or women
dancing with men, but no binding action.

Religion and Rights in the Context of an Election Campaign

3. (SBU) Conservative members of the National Assembly and
elements of the Karzai government, notably the Ministry of
Information and Culture, consistently raise Islamic norms and
Sharia law when evaluating bills before the legislature. In
recent memory, members objected to a bill on highway tolls
because it included non-compliance fines, the moribund media
law bill because it might protect 'anti-Islamic' programming,
and the passport law bill because it allowed women to obtain
their own passports without explicit permission from male
relatives. Religiously based analysis of legislation will
likely increase and become more emotional with the approach
of elections as conservative politicians compete to burnish
their religious credentials. Few MPs are prepared to be
accused of being soft on the issue of religion.

4. (SBU) Even President Karzai carefully walked the line
between support for press freedom and respect for Islam as he
responded to questions taken during a post-Bucharest press
conference on April 6. He made a clear statement in favor of
freedom of expression when he said, "As long as I am
president here, there will never be any interference in media
freedom," but he also admonished television stations to
carefully consider their content. "In cases where the
broadcasts of Afghanistan's television channels are against
the daily life of our people and against what the people
accept in their daily life from the cultural point of view,
they should not be aired. I request the television channels
to stop such broadcasts." Karzai also returned to a
familiar, populist theme, warning against outside
interference. "I see that Afghanistan's television is deeply

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influenced by foreign broadcasts. This is not in favor of
Afghanistan."

Fair Claims of Inconsistent Enforcement

5. (SBU) TOLO views itself as a vehicle for social change in
Afghanistan and deliberately challenges traditional norms.
Its broadcast of Afghan Star (modeled after American Idol but
featuring Afghan songs and music), including a female singer
from Kandahar among the three finalists, drew criticism from
the conservatives, but had a huge following among Afghans
from all age groups and regions. The station has also been
criticized for broadcasting romantic Indian soap operas
(popular to the point of a national obsession) and concerts
(including a pixelated Shakira concert aired during the last
week of Ramadan in late 2007).

6. (SBU) TOLO willingness to push the envelope sets it up
for criticism, but its complaints about Ministry of
Information and Culture's inconsistent enforcement of
religious standards may have merit. In fact, Indian movies
are a longtime Afghan television staple, aired by all major
Afghan television stations, including the state outlet, Radio
Television Afghanistan (RTA). Further, TOLO's The Afghan
Academy Awards dance number which drew conservative
parliamentarians' ire was lifted wholesale (same dancers,
same moves, same music) from a locally-produced movie already
approved by the Ministry and due shortly for local release.

Sending a Message while Staying out of the Election Fray

7. (SBU) We will continue to remind the government and MPs of
the importance we attach to international standards relating
to freedom of speech and freedom of the press, but we also
note that the election campaign is reflected in a highly
charged environment where provocation and double standards
often define the terms of the debate. Each side appears
ready to stake out extreme positions in favor of one absolute
- freedom of speech or Islamic values - leaving little room
for compromise or voices of reason. Taking a public stance
insisting on TOLO's right to broadcast particular program
would put us in the middle of the debate and likely prove to
be counterproductive. We will continue to underline to
parliamentary leadership, the ministry, and other officials
our commitment to international standards relating to media
and speech freedoms and our expectation that the Afghan
government ensure the protections included in its
constitution are upheld.
DELL

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