We may not have a nation but at least we have a TV station

Thirty-five million Kurds may not have a country, but they do have a television station. Except that the ITC is closing it down after pressure from Turkey.
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The Independent Culture
AT FIRST glance, Hikmet Tabak looks like any other London media executive. Dressed in a dark suit with blue shirt and designer tie, his mobile phone never far from his hand, the 38-year-old director of the Kurdish station MedTV is the very image of the elegant urbanite.

"Before we began broadcasting," he says "only smugglers brought news from one Kurdish community to the next. The Kurds were told that they didn't exist, that their culture was worthless. Now they can hear their own language, listen to their own music."

On Sunday, Mr Tabak and his colleagues at the station celebrated the Kurdish new year. MedTV had managed to survive another year despite Turkish opposition, creating a virtual Kurdish nation for its 16 million viewers throughout Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

But on Monday, Turkish television reported that the channel was due to be closed at 4pm. The Independent Television Commission (ITC) had decided to suspend the station's broadcasting licence for 21 days for breaches of impartiality and incitement to violence following coverage of the capture of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK).

A few days earlier, I had visited the cultural capital of Kurdistan: Denderleeuw, 20 miles from Brussels. Here, on an industrial estate, are the studios of MedTV, broadcasting via satellite 18 hours daily of Kurdish news, features, music, discussion programmes and religious debates. It is the voice of a country that, according to Turkey, does not even exist.

The station is run on an annual budget of pounds 10m. The wobbly-looking set for the daily phone-in, Good Morning Kurdistan, is very much in Middle Eastern taste, with little porcelain figures in display cases, wallpaper simulated by dabs of paint, rattan furniture, and book-spines painted on to wood. It is a living-room for the thousands who phone in from the Anatolian mountains, Syria, northern Iraq and Europe.

The Kurds are not only one of the oldest cultures; they also, with their 35 million members, make up the largest stateless nation in the world. They trace their roots back to the Medes, an ancient civilisation which lends MedTV its name.

In Turkey, watching the station amounts to an act of rebellion. Satellite dishes are impounded and shot at by the authorities; viewers are threatened with prison. Despite all this, or because of it, MedTV has an almost religious following. Sixteen million people are said to watch the station regularly.

Since MedTV went on air in 1995, Turkey has tried to stop it from broadcasting. The station is dubbed "PKK TV" and is accused of being funded by organised crime, and of supporting terrorism. Its satellite signal has been jammed from a Turkish source and broadcasting deals have been revoked after pressure from Turkey. That country has also lobbied the British Government and the ITC to close the station, which is administratively based in London.

The ITC objected to the screening of interviews with PKK activists, who call on the Kurds to rise against Turkey and declare a state of war. The rebel movement's belligerent hyperbole sits uneasily with Western standards of journalism, especially as the station did not contrast these calls with other views. In the months leading up to the ITC's decision, the station has been warned and fined for failing to ensure the impartiality of its reporting.

But, says Mr Tabak: "It is almost impossible to present impartial news coverage if Turkish officials refuse invitations to appear on the programmes. Our opponents are working to Middle Eastern rules, but we have to abide by British standards."

For those working at MedTV, journalism is an act of cultural self-assertion which is often bought at a huge price. Everyone has friends and family members who have been threatened or killed.

Mr Tabak, the son of mountain farmers, became involved in demonstrations for Kurdish rights and culture while he was at school. In 1978, then 18, he was arrested as a "trouble-maker" and tortured by the Turkish authorities. He was released 11 years later. The only conviction he received was a three-year sentence for saying in court that he was Kurdish.

When I visited the studios of MedTV, images of corpses and of women in shock and mourning were flickering across multiple screens, accompanied by elegiac music.

"Today is the anniversary of a terrible day," explained one of the journalists working there. "On 16 March 1988, 5,000 Kurds were gassed by Saddam Hussein in south Kurdistan. We have lost so much. But we do have MedTV. We can at least speak our language here."

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