Arm The Spirit on Sat, 15 May 1999 19:13:26 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Med-TV Licence Revoked - Station Silenced

Med-TV Licence Revoked - Station Silenced

By Gill Newsham

     Med-TV is the first ever Kurdish-language satellite
television station, broadcasting across Europe and the Middle
East to an estimated audience of over 35 million Kurds. Or it was
until March 22nd of this year, when the UK's broadcasting
watchdog, the ITC (Independent Television Commission) ordered a
suspension of the channel, followed by a complete closedown last
     Med-TV had been broadcasting a mix of films, documentaries,
debates, music, children's programmes and news since the
mid-1990s, and for Kurdish viewers the ITC's decision is an
immense blow. But for those of us who were instrumental in
establishing Med-TV, the news was no surprise, coming at a time
of increased cross-European co-operation by NATO countries.
Med-TV's supporters hint at UK government collusion (with Turkey)
and pressure on the ITC from above. They are also claiming that a
chair of the ITC, Sir Robin Biggam, has a clear conflict of
interest - Sir Robin is also a director of British Aerospace, who
are about to start up licensed production, in Turkey, of assault
rifles and grenade launchers for Turkish security forces.
     In the summer of 1994, after I had just returned from the
Kurdish 'safe haven' region of northern Iraq, I was invited to
join a team of filmmakers, TV producers and Kurdish students who
had come together to try to realise a dream. Their ambition was
to create an international Kurdish language television station -
a channel that could be viewed by Kurds right across the globe. I
had been involved, as a filmmaker, in human rights delegations to
the south-east of Turkey, and had worked with refugees from
Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria in the UK, so I knew something of
the culture as well as the political restrictions that Kurds -
especially those who tried to express their cultural aspirations
- faced. At first the idea seemed impossible - very few of us had
experience in television production, let alone the establishment
of a radical new channel. Plus there were obvious cultural and,
to an extent, ideological differences in the team. But what was
wildly refreshing was the absolute belief in achieving a new
voice for an unacknowledged nation whose history had been a
catalogue of suppression and denial.
     The Kurds of Turkey have only recently had their language
acknowledged, and only to a tiny extent. Up until the 1990s
Kurdish was banned from schools, books, and newspapers - it is
still banned from use in public and political life, as is
Kurdish-language broadcasting (Turkish diplomats claim limited
use is possible in the south-east, where Kurdish music stations
are popular, but the reality is that consequences are harsh if
they try to broadcast debates or news). Somewhat unexpectedly,
Iraq had not condemned the use of Kurdish, although Baghdad had
other methods of suppression, and in Iran, just before Med-TV
began to broadcast, a ban on the use of satellite dishes was
     So Kurds from all these countries came together in Europe to
embark on an ambitious scheme to bypass the censors of the
regimes they had lived under, to create a form of communication
that could express the variety of social, cultural and political
links, and differences, that make the Kurds the largest 'nation
without a country'. Within Europe, because of the rapid
development of communication technologies, large populations of
displaced Kurds, and most importantly, perceived 'democratic
freedoms', it seemed possible to achieve this long-held aim.
Satellite television was chosen as the medium, and
English-speaking Kurds working for the station would speak with
fervour of wanting to emulate the BBC (many of them brought up
with the World Service broadcasts as their only 'independent'
version of events around the globe). Ironic then, that eventually
it would be the UK that put Med-TV off the airwaves.
     Partly tactical and partly practical, we applied to the ITC
for a licence. My colleagues knew their former censors very well,
and were anticipating a battle. We felt that by both being guided
and supported by the ITC in Britain, based in a democratic
country, setting ourselves the highest of standards from the
beginning, we could avoid many of the slurs that we knew would
come. Turkey had already been reporting rumours on their
television channels that the PKK (The Kurdistan Workers Party)
were about to launch a radio station to communicate with their
guerrillas, and we knew that they were attempting to raise fears
about us before we had even begun. In Turkey the standard charge
for anyone - be they Kurd, Turk, writer, journalist, politician -
who supports any form of Kurdish expression, is to label them a
'PKK terrorist'.
     The story is long, but we moved from our first tentative
hours of broadcasting pre-recorded music cassettes (The ITC
received their first barrage of complaints from Turkey that
Med-TV was being allowed to broadcast 'separatist propaganda') to
celebrating our first year of live programming. Within a few
months we were off the air - jammed by an illegal satellite
signal coming from the coast of Turkey. Med-TV was fortunate in
our supporters, in a short time we had built a strong and vocal
group - from playwrights, politicians, writers, actors and
business personalities - who, like me, were inspired and
awe-struck with the audacity of the dream and the success in
achieving it, and were determined to see it survive. We knew,
from diplomatic sources, that Turkey had given a dossier on
Med-TV to the then PM, John Major, asking for it to be closed
down. Reports were that America had been approached in the same
way, urged to do whatever was in its power.
     In September 1996, in a highly co-ordinated operation, all
our studios, offices, and many employees' homes, were raided by
anti-terror squads. We were off the air for one day, returning to
the now jaded music cassettes we'd started with. For many months
our energies were spent on building up a new team, frantically
pulling together pre-recorded cassettes from all over Europe, and
working with experienced lawyers to get our colleagues released
from detention. We did it, and eventually Med-TV was cleared of
any criminal charge - the station continued. I was initially
surprised by how determined the Turkish government, in
particular, was in getting us off the air. We knew that Med-TV
had friends in parliament, but we knew our opponents would stop
at nothing - the experience of working at the station involved
being followed, threatened, beaten up, homes raided, working
undercover (for our newsgathering teams in the Middle East),
being excluded from press conferences, arrested, questioned,
detained, and for one of our reporters in Iraq, murdered.
     Despite this, Med-TV went from strength to strength. One of
the most powerful motivators was the audience - they loved the
station and wept when it was launched, and wept again when it was
suspended. But we had achieved something incredible, the
determination of a divided people to keep this one thing so
dearly fought for. When we needed support, we got it, when we
needed money, they sent it, when we were off the air for one day,
our fax machines worked continuously, receiving messages of
support and letters of protest, literally from all over the
world. Journalists who went to cover Kurdish stories returned and
spoke of whole villages saving up to buy a satellite dish and a
TV, of coffee houses showing the station despite repeated attacks
from the police, and of viewers in Iran, creating ingenious
dish-covers so that they could watch the channel. For me, it was
inspiring to see Kurds from different countries working alongside
each other, trying to understand their differences and achieve a
new voice for themselves. It was like no other place I have seen
or worked in. I left the station a year ago but it has not left
me. Like many of the original team, I am still involved,
responsible, worried and proud.
     On April 23, 1999, after a three-week suspension, the ITV
revoked Med-TV's licence, on the grounds of 'inciting violence'.
It was almost inevitable. The ITC's relationship with Med-TV had
formerly been a healthy one, and although they would not confirm
it, we always felt that they were receiving a lot of outside
pressure to censure us. And, we have to admit, we also made
mistakes in our broadcasts - but these were rectifiable, with
training and guidance from the regulating bodies, which we
sought. However, we knew that the UK government largely did not
support the existence of our station, and the Foreign Office had
expressed 'concerns' about Med-TV when asked. Couple that with
the current climate of the 'information war' backing up the UK's
'war' with Serbia, when television stations are bombed without
embarrassment, journalists killed and declared 'legitimate
targets'. Of course, the bombardments are largely controlled by
the emperor of NATO, America, but our own government insists we
are fighting a 'moral' war and have to be seen to be primary
motivators behind any actions. The ITC may have its own battle
when the Human Rights Act comes into force, which will give
important rights to companies and individuals, including a right
to free expression. It won't come into force until at least 2001
because of Home Office concerns that neither Whitehall nor the
courts are ready to cope with the legislative changes.
     So, for the moment, Med-TV is unable to broadcast - unable
to inform its viewers of the results of bombing raids in Iraq, of
the elections in Turkey and the forthcoming trial of the PKK
leader there (who faces a death sentence), of the actions of NATO
countries, many with significant Kurdish refugee communities, in
the Balkans - denying Kurds, effectively, a voice.

May 7, 1999

For A Free And Independent Kurdistan!
KURD-L Archives -

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