The Kurds fight back on guerrilla TV

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Denied their own country, the Kurdish people are using an international TV station based in London to unite the diaspora around the world.

In a tattered neighbourhood of Istanbul, a family of 18 Kurdish women and children - the men, if still alive, are off fighting in the mountains - crowd together in their tiny living room. Seated on cushions stuffed with rags found in the garbage, they focus their attention on the sole piece of furniture in the room, the television set.

Tonight, like every evening, a miracle unfolds on the screen: a news announcer is speaking their language, forbidden on Turkish TV. He is bringing them not just news of the world, but of their world, and of the vicious 14-year-old civil war that has ravaged their family and uprooted them from their homeland in the south-east.

Numbering more than 25 million, the Kurds are the world's largest nation without a recognised homeland. Most live in Turkey, where they are forced to assimilate or suffer vicious persecution; beatings, imprisonment or death. The Turkish military regularly demolishes Kurdish villages. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein has gone as far as gassing Kurdish settlements with chemical weapons.

But though the Kurds don't have their own country, they do have Med-TV, the world's only international Kurdish television station.

"Before, we were blindfolded," says a woman in the room named Meyru, her face worn by time and hardship. "When we watch Med-TV, it's as though we had Kurdistan before our very eyes."

A privately owned station named after the Kurds' ancient ancestors, Med- TV has been on the air for three difficult years. It escapes censure in Turkey and elsewhere by transmitting via satellite from its headquarters in London, a small office facing Burberry's on Regent Street. With production centres in various European cities, the station reaches Kurds in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.

Now broadcasting 18 hours a day, Med-TV offers not only news but talk shows, music, cultural programmes, and even Charlie Chaplin films. It makes a point of providing air time to a range of religious and political viewpoints. Cartoons give many children their first lessons in Kurdish.

Kurds separated by borders, languages and political differences have unanimously embraced the intrepid station. In south-eastern Turkey, satellite dish sales have soared. People sell their livestock to scrape together the money. Soldiers smash the dishes they find.

Throughout the diaspora, cultural centres turn into mini-cinemas at news time. As one viewer in Paris explains, "Med-TV has helped many people realise what it means to be Kurdish."

The bulk of the station's production takes place in a sprawling, nondescript building in the dreary Brussels suburb of Denderleeuw. Most hours of the day and night, this is where you will find Turan Demir, the earnest, ultra- competent 23-year-old news director. A Turk who speaks not a word of Kurdish, he helped to create Med-TV, though he, like the rest of the staff, had absolutely no prior television experience.

"We try to be the voice of all the Kurds and so we produce the news in every dialect," he says. "We don't want Kurds to lose their identity, which is already damaged very much."

Most of the employees are young Kurds in exile, working seven days a week and earning little more than their expenses. But they are not here for the money.

"The first time I read the news in Kurdish, it felt like a kind of revenge, after all the years we were beaten up for speaking our language," confides Zana Serin, a 28-year-old newscaster who fled Turkey with his family when he was a boy.

The crew receives much of its information by telephone from people living in Kurdistan, a territory which straddles four different countries: Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. From time to time, undercover cameramen smuggle out cassettes with images of fighting or repression in the area. The quality of the reporting suffers from an obvious lack of footage - many items repeat the same pictures - but this is the only channel telling the Kurdish side of the story and its viewers feel it is the closest they can get to the truth.

"Until now," says Ertugrul Kurkcu, one of the rare journalists in Turkey willing to talk about the Kurdish question, "Turkish authorities have done everything to cut the links between Kurdistan and the rest of the world. Many journalists have been killed just for reporting the facts."

Ankara insists that the station is the propaganda tool of the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party, the PKK. "Med-TV is a menace," claims Turkish diplomat Guner Oztek. "It is a mouthpiece of the PKK terrorists, sowing hatred among its people."

The station vehemently denies the charge. "We are not the voice of the PKK, but of the Kurdish population," replies Mr Demir. "We get our support from the international Kurdish community, from businesses and the people. They will buy bread for themselves, then give the rest to Med-TV."

Furiously aware that a satellite feed is a much more insidious and elusive opponent than a guerrilla army, Turkey has done everything within its power to shut the station down. As a member of Nato and a major arms buyer, it wields a lot of diplomatic clout.

Turkish authorities asked the British Independent Television Commission to revoke the station's licence on grounds of provoking racial hatred, but were refused. They were more successful with the Polish government, which buckled under pressure and cancelled a contract providing Med-TV with a satellite uplink. Other countries, including France and Portugal, also withdrew their satellite space from the increasingly isolated station.

In September 1996, police raided Med-TV's offices in London and Denderleeuw, confiscating material and archives. In Belgium, gendarmes armed with machine guns ransacked the studios and arrested about 80 staff members on accusations of money laundering and trafficking in drugs and minors. Four suspects were held for 42 days, then released without a word of explanation.

Last summer, Med-TV's broadcasting satellite was jammed for nearly a month by a pirate signal. Sources unofficially confirmed that the signal came from Turkey.

And yet day after day, Kurds around the world turn on their television sets to find the station still on the air. It has become a powerful weapon in their struggle, its slogan defiantly clear: "Be Med-TV Namese" - "Without Med-TV, it's not possible."