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Kenya Football Fans Upset by Closing of Video Halls

Football fans in northeastern Kenya are expressing dismay over the decision by civic and religious leaders to close dozens of public video halls, where the fans used to watch football games. Islamic clerics in the Muslim-dominant region say the move is designed to protect young people, who are being exposed to pornography and drugs at such gatherings.

With just six weeks left before the start of the World Cup in South Africa, football fans in Mandera town in northeastern Kenya say they are distraught by the decision to close down public video halls.

Many people in the underdeveloped Muslim region, near the border with Somalia and Ethiopia, do not own television sets. If they do, most cannot afford to subscribe to South Africa's satellite network, DSTV, which will broadcast the World Cup matches to audiences in Africa.

Some desperate football fans in Mandera say they would cross the border into Ethiopia if they can find someone there with access to DSTV.

The vice chairman of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims in Northeastern Province, Sheik Abdullahi Sirat tells VOA the halls were not closed to prevent people from watching football, but to protect the community.

"Those DSTV centers are sort of clubs, where all the young men, all the young children were lured," said Sheik Abdullahi Sirat. "We have a responsibility and obligation to counsel and safeguard the values and principles of Islam. So when we say not to go where drugs are peddled, where pornography is shown, we make no apologies for doing that."

In an interview with a Kenyan newspaper, government Information Minister Samuel Phogisio criticized the closures, saying they violated Kenyans' constitutional right of assembly. Others have questioned whether the move reflected a broader effort by Muslim leaders to begin cracking down on any activity that did not meet their approval.

Northeastern Provincial Commissioner James Ole Serian says such speculation is unwarranted.

"The District Security Committee met in September last year and recommended that we close all video [halls] showing pornographic videos," said James Ole Serian. "All the local leadership - that is the local councilors, local MPs [members of parliament], the sheiks, the teachers - were all resolved that we do not need those video shows. So, we have absolutely no problem with the closure of those video rooms in Mandera."

The Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims says it has no intention of stopping people from watching football and entertainment shows in their own homes. But the council says public video halls in Mandera will be closed indefinitely and the ban may be extended to other towns in the district.