Wednesday, July 12, 2006



YIgal Schleifer 7/06/06

Fifty-six mayors from Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast region will soon stand trial in the city of Diyarbakir for allegedly aiding militants from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Charges were filed against the mayors after they wrote an open letter to Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen last January asking him to resist Turkish pressure to shut down Roj TV, a Kurdish news and entertainment satellite channel beamed out of Denmark. If found guilty, the mayors could face up to ten years in prison.

Since it started broadcasting in 2004, Roj has become one of the most widely watched television networks in Turkey's Kurdish regions. For the Turkish government, though, Roj TV brings little joy. Ankara has accused Roj of being nothing more than a mouthpiece for the PKK, which battled Turkish troops during the 1980's and 1990's in a bloody separatist fight that took the lives of more than 30,000.

Locals look at the station quite differently. In her small apartment in Diyarbakir, a major metropolitan city of about 721,000 in southeastern Anatolia, 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 from 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 housewife and mother of ten said, as she watched 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 guerillas again clashing with Turkish security forces following several years of quiet, and tensions on the rise in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast, the Turkish government has lately been stepping up a campaign to have Roj TV shut down ? a move that threatens to strain the country's 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," said one Turkish foreign ministry official. "[The PKK] is listed as a terrorist organization by the EU [European Union], 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 caught in yet another sticky freedom of the press debate. Although the outcry has been minor compared to the furor over a Danish newspaper's publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, Denmark's embassy in Ankara reports that it has received a steady stream of angry letters and e-mails 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 with Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen because a reporter from Roj was in the room. News services reported Fogh Rasmussen as saying on Danish radio in mid-June that he finds 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."

"Surely it's not something that helps to improve relations," commented Anders Christian Hoppe, Denmark's ambassador to Turkey, about the Roj TV affair. "The [Danish] government's position is that, just like in Turkey, this is a matter for the courts. Governments in western countries, including Turkey, do not interfere with the courts," the ambassador continued.

The station, he added, "is being investigated by the police, the government. We have been given material by the Turks and it has been very helpful."

Roj, which means both "day" and "sun" in Kurdish, 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 organization of its guerillas in action against Turkish security forces. Its news programs feature frequent updates about imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, a figure many Turks revile. The station's announcements regarding the deaths of PKK members border on the reverential, the guerillas' young faces shown in front of the organization's red flag.

But Manouchehr Tahsili Zonoozi, a Kurd from Iran who is the station's general manager, says the station, is not controlled by it at all. "We are an independent Kurdish broadcaster. Our job is to be journalists," he said, speaking by telephone from the station's studios in Denmark.

Zonoozi also rejects as "rubbish" the Turkish claim that Roj helped incite the recent violent protests in Turkey. "If I am going to be accused for what happened in Istanbul or Diyarbakir, then you should accuse Le Figaro for [the recent riots that] happened in France," Zonoozi said. "We are very popular and that's hard for the governments in the region."

Until recently, local stations in Turkey were forbidden from broadcasting programs in Kurdish. As part of the country's reform drive to join the European Union, that restriction was lifted, but other limits remain.
Stations are only allowed to broadcast in Kurdish for four hours a week and are not allowed to tackle political subjects in their programs or offer shows for children. Deniz Gorduk, news manager of Gun TV, a local station in Diyarbakir, says Roj ? which, among its various programs, shows children's cartoons in Kurdish ? fills a vacuum created by the Turkish government's controls.

"There are so many limits on us and that is why Roj TV is so popular," Gorduk said. "Roj TV is freer than us."

In the increasingly restive southeast of Turkey, where satellite dishes now adorn even the humblest village homes, the Turkish government's efforts to shut Roj TV are now being added to the local basket of grievances.

In one Diyarbakir family's living room, the subject of Roj TV easily gets emotions going. "When Roj TV started, it was like a sun rising," said Ali, a tailor who asked that only his first name be used. "For Kurdish people, Roj TV is a big window into their lives. We only have Roj TV and now Turkey wants to shut it down."

Editor?s Note: Yigal Schleifer is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.

Posted July 6, 2006 © Eurasianet

An almost identical article by Yigal Schleifer appeared in " Torono Star" on

Jun 24, 2006