The manager of an Afghan television network, who refused to censor images of women dancing in short skirts and plunging necklines, has been arrested in what appeared to be a new sign of the government's struggle to define the role of Islam in a country once led by 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 for airing overly salacious content, the Afghan deputy attorney general said on Tuesday.
The debate over television in this conservative Muslim country heated up after US-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, 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 US troops to the country this year. 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.
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, said Deputy Attorney General Fazel Ahmad Faqiyar.
The videos are relatively tame by Western standards, but many do feature women in tight outfits or showing cleavage. In one video, an Indian woman emerges from a pool of water with a thin dress that clings to her body.
Afghanistan's media oversight commission repeatedly reproached 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."
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 during an inquiry into the station.
Emrose started broadcasting about 10 months ago and still has a limited viewership, which could explain why it has only recently become a target of the media oversight commission.