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Kurdistan is alive and well on TV

Nick Ryan
Sunday 21 February 1999 00:02 GMT

THEY CALL it the "Little Nation". Crowded into community centres, sipping endless cups of sweet, black tea, young Kurds are fired with fervour by the images portrayed on the Kurdish satellite TV station, MED- TV.

This is not patriotism, of course, for the Kurds have no recognised nation of their own. But the emotions that the station encourages run deep - as the world realised last week.

"Every family has got it or watches it," says Alev Sonmez, 20, a Kurd living in London and typical fan of the station. "The first time I watched it, the feeling was amazing. It was the first time the Kurds had been together - you could see the news in your own language; listen to Kurdish music; and see your own, beautiful countryside."

As the world's only Kurdish satellite television station, MED-TV brings 18 hours of news, features, entertainment and films daily to an officially non-existent "Kurdistan" in various Kurdish dialects as well as Turkish, Arabic and English.

Many young Kurds like Alev have not seen their homeland since they were children, when their families fled repression in areas such as south- east Turkey. MED-TV brings them news of developments back home.

The station inspires near fanatical loyalty in its viewers: "As a Kurd, I would give everything to MED-TV," says Evin Sidar, 22, a volunteer at MED-TV's Brussels studio. "For us, it's like a family. We have never had the chance to speak or be Kurdish in public. I always saw European people and Turks as very modern and myself and Kurds as peasant people. People were ashamed to call themselves Kurdish; some would even deny it. MED- TV has changed that."

MED-TV's four-year existence has been one of turbulence, harassment and shoe-string budgets. Based in London with production facilities spread across Europe, it has suffered raids in Belgium, the UK and Germany. Employees have been arrested and archive material and funds seized (although no evidence of illegal activity has been found). Several of its journalists have disappeared or been killed covering Turkey's frequent military incursions into northern Iraq.

In 1997 the station was jammed for 23 days on its Eutelsat satellite, which was traced back to a Turkish origin. Its main satellite, Orion, was also jammed, at first only on news programmes, but then continuously, in the last three months of 1998, until it recently found "new secret means - which we are not prepared to discuss".

Turkey alleges that MED-TV is a mouthpiece for the PKK. This is vehemently denied by Hikmet Tabak, MED-TV's principal director, who points to the broad coverage his station gives to the Kurdish situation. He believes Turkey's intelligence service is behind the latest disruptions and is worried about direct attacks.

In south-east Turkey, although it is illegal, huge numbers of Kurds crowd into friends' homes to watch MED-TV. But viewers have been beaten and jailed; satellite dishes have been banned or smashed by the army; satellite vendors are targeted and electricity is often cut off in villages to stop the peasants watching.

Tabak and others say the station will fight intimidation through the courts. "Even if we have to move to India, China or the moon, we will continue to broadcast," he says.


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