In Afghanistan, religious threat to media intensifies

New York, June 7, 2011The Committee to Protect journalists is disturbed by the June 1 declaration by Afghanistan’s Ulema Shurab, or the Council of Religious Scholars, criticizing two media outlets, Hasht-e-Subh Daily newspaper and Tolo Television, for what it reportedly called “immorality” and “animosity against Islam,” according to Afghan media owners. The council is a powerful force in Afghan politics and meets frequently with President Hamid Karzai to advise him on religious and cultural affairs.

In a recent email message to CPJ, Sanjar Sohail, owner and publisher of the Kabul-based Hasht-e-Subh Daily newspaper, said the council had been offended by an article in his newspaper criticizing the religious training of girls in Kunduz and Takhar provinces. The same piece angered the council by saying that parents were concerned about their daughters being radicalized by madrassas, or religious training schools for children.

The response of the council signals that “a significant threat against independent and open media in Afghanistan is on the way,” Sanjar Sohail wrote in an email.

The council also criticized Tolo Television, whose channels are part of the country’s largest and most successful media group, for its “anti-religious” programming. In addition to its widely respected news and public affairs shows, Tolo broadcasts popular entertainment, including shows imported from India. They also broadcast the wildly popular “Afghan Star” television show that is modeled on “Britain’s Got Talent” and “American Idol.” Since it was founded in 2004, Tolo has been under frequent pressure from authorities for its news entertainment programming.

“Afghanistan media are important voices for their country. We call on President Hamid Karzai to ensure the expectations of the country’s religious leadership do not stifle free speech,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator.