KABUL // In a tiny studio tucked away in Kabul's most upmarket enclave is a man whose job is lampooning warlords. Not that Hanif Hangam, the host of Afghanistan's top satirical TV show, stops there. Taliban rebels, UN diplomats and pilgrims to Mecca are all subject to his caustic wit. Want to know what's really happening in the presidential palace? "Let's cut to video!" Mr Hangam crows, cueing up a shot of the president, Hamid Karzai ? who, you notice, is none other than your derisive host cloaked in drag. It's scurrilous and unsubtle but this is political satire, Afghan-style.
Zang-e-Khatar (Alarm Bell) has been thriving on Afghanistan's recent political tribulations, with the election debacle, corruption charges and now the ambitious Taliban reconciliation and reintegration programme outlined last month in London providing ample material. The show receives prime-time billing at 9pm every Wednesday and almost everyone, it seems, has seen an episode. "It's good entertainment," said Ahmad Fawad, a shopkeeper. "It's our custom to watch it every week." His friend chimed in: "It's funny and it's informative. Our government is weak and Zang-e-Khatar tells people what's going on."
In recent episodes Mr Hangam and his panellists have targeted idle politicians who, they assert, prefer sex tourism in Tajikistan to inconvenient affairs of state. The international community's overtures for talks with the Taliban have been held up to scorn. And there is a running joke in which spokesmen from Nato, the government and the rebels end up brawling in the studio. Mr Hangam, who is surprisingly demure off-screen despite his hip-hop swagger and noisy dress sense, glows. "The greatest thing is I made something out of nothing," he says.
His feelings might pass as comment on Afghanistan's TV industry as a whole which, despite being banned for five years under the Taliban, now has about 20 stations operating in the capital Kabul. The latest addition is 1 TV, which has a mission to "uplift the nation" and hit the airwaves at the end of last year. Its British production director, Siobhan Berry, 34, says the station's edge will come from its superior programming, which will include cartoons, game shows, impartial news reporting and imports from India, Turkey and the West. Despite widespread Afghan enthusiasm, this is a grand goal in a country where know-how is still limited and ambition outstrips ability painfully often.
Afghanistan's most successful media outlet is the Moby Group, which broadcasts Zang-e-Khatar via the country's most popular channel, Tolo television. It has courted controversy, not just with its satirical offering but by continuing to run wildly popular Indian soap operas (in which sex and romance are dealt with more overtly than some Afghans are comfortable with) after a backlash by conservative clerics led most stations to cancel them. It is also the home of Afghan Star, an American Idol-style programme that gained international recognition when filmmaker Havana Marking's documentary of the same name was featured at the Sundance Festival 2009. In the last series a female contender was forced into hiding after the Taliban, mullahs and even her relatives threatened to kill her for violating taboos by taking part.
Moby Group claims its success - it says it has 56 per cent of the market - is down to its impartial stance, still something of a rarity. Aside from government-owned stations, which frequently come in for allegations of bias towards Mr Karzai's government, there is the Tamadon channel, which concentrates on providing its owner, a leading Shiite cleric, with a platform from which he preaches, lobbies for Islamic laws and criticises the West. Meanwhile, the Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum uses his Aiina channel to promote his battlefield exploits and broadcast footage of him galloping after Taliban fighters on horseback.
For Afghanistan's fledgling presenters the progress has sometimes come at a cost. Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said last year that two TV presenters had been arrested, one for allegedly offending Afghan clerics and another for interviewing a Taliban spokesman. Mr Hangam himself says he has received death threats and been beaten up for some of his less-than-complimentary skits. The show's impact can be measured in other ways, too. Zang-e-Khatar has several imitators despite the reluctance of authorities to tolerate dissent. Khandahaye Geryadar (Laugh Until You Cry) and Talaq (The Trap) are two of the more popular spin-offs and, like Zang-e-Khatar, have caused enough of a stir that the politicians they lambast have begun to change their ways. MPs apparently stopped throwing bottles at each other during heated debates after one of the programmes called for bottling companies to start making MP-friendly receptacles. On another occasion, the Kabul municipality began repairing potholes after an episode pilloried its failure to fulfil this most rudimentary of duties.
* The National