Sunday, June 25, 2006

56 Kurdish mayors charged in TV dispute Face prison term



Face prison term for backing satellite channel

Turkey says Danish station linked to militants

Jun. 24, 2006 . 01:00 AM



DIYARBAKIR, Turkey—Fifty-six mayors from Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast region have been charged with aiding militants of the Kurdistan Workers' Party — after publicly supporting a TV channel beamed by satellite from Denmark.

The mayors face up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

Since it started broadcasting in 2004, Roj TV has become one of the most widely watched television networks in Turkey's Kurdish regions.

In January, the mayors wrote an open letter to Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, asking him to resist Turkish pressure to shut down the satellite news and entertainment service.

The government in Ankara, however, accuses Roj TV of being a mouthpiece for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which battled Turkish troops during the 1980s and '90s in a bloody separatist fight that killed more than 30,000 people.

"It is clear that (the mayors) helped the PKK knowingly and willingly," the indictment says.

The Kurds, however, see Roj TV as a cultural lifeline.

In her small apartment in Diyarbakir, an ancient city ringed by a stone wall dating back to Roman times, Rabia Celikmilek has access to the entire world. A satellite dish on the roof of her crumbling brick building streams 452 channels into her television, with programs coming from countries on almost every continent. But Celikmilek, a Kurd, says she really only watches Roj TV.

"I don't know Turkish and I don't want to watch Turkish programs. I want to watch programs in my own language, so I watch Roj," the 46-year-old mother of 10 says, as she watches the station's evening news broadcast.

"Roj TV reflects the emotions of the Kurds, our opinions. It's a mirror of the Kurds. So when I watch it, I am happy."

With PKK guerrillas again clashing with Turkish security forces, following several years of quiet, and tensions on the rise in the southeast, the Turkish government has been stepping up a campaign to have Roj TV shut down — a move that threatens to strain the normally staid relations with Denmark and which has raised hackles among Kurds.

"We know for sure that Roj TV is part of the PKK, a terrorist organization," a Turkish foreign ministry official says. The PKK "is listed as a terrorist organization by the EU, and Denmark is a member of the EU and we would expect that the broadcasting organization of a terrorist group would not be given a free pass."

Turkey has accused Roj of helping incite a three-day outbreak of violent protests in the southeast in March and says it has provided the Danish government with documentation to prove the station's link to the PKK.

Denmark , meanwhile, finds itself wrapped up in yet another sticky freedom of the press debate. Although nothing compared to the furor over the printing of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad by a Danish newspaper, Denmark's embassy in Ankara has been receiving a steady stream of angry letters and emails from Turks incensed by the country's hosting of Roj TV.

The issue even sparked a mini-diplomatic crisis in Copenhagen last November when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan boycotted a joint press conference with his Danish counterpart because a reporter from Roj was in the room. Rasmussen ended up awkwardly appearing before the cameras on his own.

"Surely, it's not something that helps to improve relations," Anders Christian Hoppe, Denmark's ambassador to Turkey, says of the Roj TV affair.

"The (Danish) government's position is that, just like in Turkey, this is a matter for the courts."

In response to the mayors' upcoming trial, Rasmussen told reporters: "I find it rather shocking ... that because you write a letter to me, you are being accused of violating the law. It is shocking that it can take place in a country which is seeking EU membership."

Roj, which means both "day" and "sun" in Kurdish, certainly has open access to the PKK, whose fighters and leadership are holed up in the mountains of northern Iraq.

The station frequently airs footage provided by the group of its guerrillas in action against Turkish security forces. During a recent interview in Diyarbakir, the mother of a slain PKK guerrilla was asked how she learned about her son's death. "On Roj TV," she said, as if the answer should have been obvious.

But Manouchehr Tahsili Zonoozi, a Kurd from Iran who is the station's general manager, says that it is not controlled by it.

"We are an independent Kurdish broadcaster. Our job is to be journalists," he says in a telephone interview from the station's studios in Denmark.

Yigal Schleifer is a journalist based in Turkey


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