Turkey lifts ban on Kurdish broadcasts in effort to impress EU

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The Independent Online

"Speak Turkish. Speak it a lot," a sign over the entrance to the prison in Turkey's main Kurdish city, Diyarbakir, used to proclaim. Hundreds passed under it on their way to long sentences for daring to assert that the Kurds have a separate ethnic identity of their own.

But now Turkey's parliament has voted for the first time to make broadcasting in Kurdish legal, in what could become the first step in a new era of recognition for Turkey's 12 million persecuted Kurds.

The ban on broadcasting in Kurdish was one of the most important symbols of Turkish repression of the Kurds. Even the poorest Kurdish slum, full of refugees whose villages were burnt down by the Turkish army, has its satellite dish to receive illegal Kurdish broadcasts from Europe.

To the Kurds, the ban was the embodiment of Turkey's refusal to acknowledge them as an ethnic minority. The authorities argued that acknowledgement would encourage separatists such as Abdullah Ocalan's Kurdistan Workers' Party, which fought a brutal 15-year campaign against security forces.

Even to speak Kurdish was illegal until 1991 and until recently Turkey still refused to acknowledge that the language existed – claiming it was a dialect of Turkish. Kurds were officially classified as "mountain Turks".

The shift in Turkish policy came under pressure from the European Union, which Turkey wants to join. The country was named as a candidate in 1999 but has been told it must improve its woeful human rights record.

This week, the Turkish parliament has voted on a series of amendments to the constitution to improve human rights. Publishing in languages other than Turkish has been legalised and the death penalty has been abolished, except for war crimes and terrorism. But a ban on education in Kurdish remains.

How free broadcasting in Kurdish will be remains to be seen; the government retains draconian powers over content. And this week, Kurdish football players were arrested for playing in the Kurdish national colours; red, yellow and green. The tournament organisers face up to five years' jail.