Authorities arrested the manager of an Afghan TV station for refusing to censor women's bare limbs, officials said Tuesday, cracking down on an envelope-pushing broadcaster as they grapple with the cultural sway of Islamic extremists.
The government has previously censured television stations and taken others to court, but the arrest of Emrose TV's Fahim Khodamani on Monday was the first by authorities for airing overly salacious content, said Deputy Attorney General Fazel Ahmad Faqiyar.
The debate over what should be shown on television in this conservative Muslim country heated up after U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban in 2001.
The militant group, which practices an extreme version of Islam, banned television and other forms of entertainment that it deemed un-Islamic when it ruled the country in the 1990s. It also required women to cover themselves under an all-encompassing burqa.
Since the Taliban fell, television stations have flourished in Afghanistan, pitting the issue of freedom of the press against conservative norms in a country where most women wear clothes that cover everything but their face and neck.
The issue has become even more complicated with the resurgence of the Taliban in southern Afghanistan in the past few years — gains that President Barack Obama hopes to counter by sending an additional 17,000 U.S. troops to the country this year.
Aggressive Afghan government attempts to censor TV programs could be part of a strategy to temper conflict with the Taliban. Or it could be an attempt to siphon support from Afghans drawn to the Taliban's conservative style of Islam.
Many Afghan TV stations cut or blur scenes with women showing more than their face or neck, taking a conservative stance to avoid violating a vague government law that prohibits media content that is not "within the framework of Islam."
Khodamani was arrested for refusing repeated requests to pixelate or otherwise obscure images of women dancing in short skirts or outfits with low necklines, Faqiyar said.
Afghanistan's media oversight commission sent letters to the station in recent months reproaching the channel for the amount of bare skin on its programs, and for airing pop music videos during the Islamic holiday of Ashoura in January, according to Faqiyar and the station's owner, Najibullah Kabuli.
Kabuli confirmed that Khodamani refused to edit or censor the programming, saying it was station policy to air unaltered programs.
He said the demand and Khodamani's arrest were "against freedom of speech and democracy." Kabuli, who is also a member of parliament, said the arrest may have been masterminded by his political enemies.
The arrest comes days after Afghanistan's top Muslim clerics called on the government to block stations from "airing prohibited and hypocritical anti-Islam programs and immoral scenes and movies."
Afghanistan's culture minister has warned that the Taliban use racy broadcasts like those on Emrose as a tool in their culture war — recruiting villagers who feel that the government is too influenced by Western morals.
Last year, the Afghan government tried to ban a number of popular Indian soap operas. Some stations took the shows off the air, but others refused, saying the shows broke no laws.
Faqiyar said Khodamani will be held up to 15 days while an inquiry is conducted into the station's actions.
Emrose started broadcasting about 10 months ago and still has a very small viewership, which is a possible reason why it has only recently become a target of the media oversight commission.
Also Tuesday, the U.N. refugee agency said the deteriorating security in Afghanistan last year increased the number of citizens requesting asylum in industrialized nations by 85 percent to 18,500. The number of security incidents in Afghanistan increased 31 percent last year, according to U.N. statistics.
In the latest violence, NATO troops on a foot patrol shot and killed an Afghan civilian south of Kabul on Tuesday after he ignored their signals to stop as he sped toward them in a car, the coalition said.
Meanwhile, Afghan's Interior Ministry said a bomb blast in a mosque in southern Afghanistan killed the mosque's mullah and injured six others. Ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary said an investigation was continuing into Monday's explosion.