An appeal from the country's top Islamic judge this week prompted the Cabinet to order television networks temporarily off the air — just three years after a Taliban ban on TV was lifted.
The spat is the latest in the battle for control of Afghan society between still-influential religious conservatives and liberals and entrepreneurs enjoying new freedoms.
"The consequences are disastrous for Afghanistan," Saad Mohseni, director of Tolo TV, said Thursday. He predicted more restrictions would follow.
Supreme Court chief justice Fazl Hadi Shinwari, an arch conservative, appealed to President-elect Hamid Karzai during Ramadan to shut down TV programming, and the Cabinet did so, at least until new regulations are drawn up.
It was a victory for Shinwari, who was on the losing side in January, when the government ignored his protests at the return of veiled female singers to state television screens. The ban had originated with Islamic fundamentalists who ruled in the early 1990s and was lifted only when the repressive Taliban regime fell.
A screening last week of the "The Ten Commandments" starring Charlton Heston provided ammunition for the conservatives.
"It showed the prophet Moses with short trousers and among the girls," Wahid Mujdah, a Supreme Court spokesman, said. "He's a very holy person and Islam respects him. This is wrong."
Mohseni, director of Tolo TV, a new Afghan channel that showed the biblical epic, said the situation epitomized the threat to free speech in a country championed by the United States as a model for the region.
He accused officials of trying to silence increasingly sophisticated media coverage of Afghan politics.
"Ministers will come and go. But the free media should be here to stay to serve the nation and its public," he said. "This is a time for people to take a stand."
In the political jockeying for positions in Karzai's new government following his victory in Afghanistan's landmark Oct. 9 election, the liberals lost their champion. Culture Minister Makhdom Raheen fought for the TV stations in January but is accused of switching his views to try to salvage his post as Karzai ponders his new team.
Mujdah made plain that the conservatives' main target are the Indian films hugely popular with young Afghans for their raunchy dance routines.
"Immoral" movies were even blamed for the recent fatal stabbing of a student at Kabul University, which has led to street protests in capital.
"The boys are disturbing the girls in these films. Then there are then gangs fighting each other. All these things are against Afghan culture," Mujdah said.
Mohammed Hashem Pakzad, the owner of Ariana, one of about 20 cable operators in Kabul, said he read about the new ban in the newspaper and stopped transmitting for fear police — "in a bad mood" — might smash up his office.
"I'm a Muslim, and I wouldn't show any sexy films," he said. "This is just a conspiracy against the cable operators. These people just want to keep Afghan people in the dark."