Silencing a People: How Turkey is Depriving Kurds of a Voice

When Naila Bozo met Denmark’s prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen as a school girl, she couldn’t have known behind his amiable demeanor, he was selling out her people.

“He came to my school and I saw him walk around the schoolyard. He helped my sister with her homework,” Bozo told teleSUR English.

Earlier this year, Wikileaks published cables indicating Rasmussen was at the center of a secret deal between Turkey and the Danish government to crush a Denmark-based Kurdish language television station, Roj TV. The controversial closure of Roj TV sparked a furor from free speech advocates and Kurdish activists, who accused the Danish government of selling out free speech so Rasmussen could land a job as the secretary general of NATO. Without Turkish support, Rasmussen’s bid to head the world’s largest military alliance would have been vetoed.

Read more about Rasmussen’s secret deal here.

Today Rasmussen has only just retired as NATO’s head, while Bozo is the editor of the human rights monitor, the Alliance for Kurdish Rights.

“I was born and raised in Denmark. In school I was taught about democracy and freedom of speech and press. I learned that Denmark defended these freedoms with all its might,” Bozo said.

When Roj TV was launched in 2004, it quickly became one of the world’s most well-known Kurdish broadcasters. Along with providing news with a distinct Kurdish focus, the station also aired talk shows, cultural segments, light entertainment and a handful of childrens’ programs.

“Roj TV was Kurdistan on air; it was where we learned Kurdish, learned about our history, about other Kurds, about Kurdish traditions, Kurdish songs and poetry – and the Kurdish struggle,” Bozo said. Roj TV fought a long legal battle to remain on the airwaves, broadcasting its signal from Denmark to Turkey’s southern regions, which are predominantly Kurdish. However, by the time Wikileaks revealed a secret agreement had indeed been struck between Rasmussen and Ankara to close Roj TV in exchange for Turkey’s support for his NATO bid, Roj TV has already lost its final appeal in Danish courts against a 2012 ruling that it had violated Denmark’s broadcast regulations.
After a series of complaints from the Turkish embassy, Roj TV was found to be biased against the Turkish government, and supportive of an E.U.-listed so called terrorist group – the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). A review of Roj TV’s coverage by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) backed up the court’s decision, but as Bozo asked, “How can Roj TV not be biased towards Ankara when the state of Turkey is biased towards Kurds?”

“When Kurdish children are deemed terrorists by Turkish politicians, how can Roj TV avoid being called a mouthpiece for terrorism?” Bozo questioned.

The Heartbreak of Roj TV’s Shut Down

When Roj TV closed its doors, Kurds didn’t just lose a news broadcaster, but “a channel that addressed all parts of life,” according to Kurdish journalist Amed Dicle.

“The closure of Roj TV upset the Kurds. There were people that cried,” he told teleSUR.
Activists say Turkey’s efforts to pressure Denmark to close Roj TV were part of broader campaign to deny Turkish Kurds’ access to free speech. Around 18 percent of Turkey’s population is ethnically Kurdish, but activists and human rights groups have long accused Ankara of denying the ethnic group basic rights, including freedom of expression.

“If you want to express the official state ideology in Kurdish, then that is fine. In other words, talking about the state in Kurdish is accepted and supported. However, to talk about the Kurds or Kurdistan is still banned. Childrens’ cartoons are banned on the state run Kurdish TV channel. Why? Because they don’t want the children to learn their own mother tongue, they don’t want the children growing up to think in Kurdish,” Dicle said.

Instead, Dicle said most prominent Kurdish journalists and broadcasters work from “exile.”

“A lot of us working in these TV channels aren’t allowed to go back to our countries due to our jobs,” he said. Dicle himself has worked in a state of exile for 15 years, now as a writer for the Amsterdam-based Firat News Agency and Kurdish language newspaper Azadiya Welat, Dicle. Like Roj TV, Firat has likewise been accused by Turkey of supporting the PKK.

Dicle says his journalism “discomforts the Turkish state,” and has resulted in Turkish authorities issuing a warrant for his arrest.

Turkey’s War Against Journalism

Dicle isn’t the only journalist hunted byTurkish authorities. In 2012 and 2013, Turkey was listed by the CPJ as the world’s worst jailer of media workers.

Amid an escalating crackdown on journalists in 2012, Kurdish journalist Fazel Hawramy wrote for the UK’s Guardian newspaper that Kurdish reporters have “borne the brunt of Turkey’s intolerance for decades – and the current government’s approach is no exception.” Indeed, a 2012 CPJ study found 70 percent of Turkey’s imprisoned journalists were ethnically Kurds.

“The government sees the Kurdish journalists as no different from PKK fighters and often labels them as terrorists or supporters of terrorism so that their long term pre-trial detention is more palatable for the general public,” Hawramy wrote.

A CPJ spokesperson told teleSUR in September that Turkey has released scores of journalists in recent months, and has since lost the dubious title of #1 jailer of journalists to Iran and China. However, Bozo argued that while Turkey “might no longer be the world’s number one jailer of journalists, the conditions that journalists work under remain deplorable.”

“The Turkish state has released them from prison but in most cases, the charges of ‘supporting terrorism’ by merely reporting on important Kurdish issues still stand. While the journalists might not be in a physical jail anymore, censorship and restrictions of reporting and publishing is very much in force,” she stated.

However, Turkey’s repression of journalists doesn’t just affect Kurds, but Turks as well. When a wave of Occupy-esque protests broke out in Istanbul and other major cities in 2013, most of Turkey’s mainstream media largely ignored the thousands of protesters flooding the streets. Under a veil of media silence, human rights groups claimed Turkish security forces were violently cracking down on dissent.

In June 2013, a researcher for Amnesty International, Andrew Gardner, described police attacks on protesters as “shocking abuse.” When journalists attempted to cover the one year anniversary of the start of the protests earlier this year, Bozo told teleSUR they were “were beaten and harassed by police.”

“If Turkish journalists are having a hard time, Kurdish journalists are struggling even more,” she said.

Yet Bozo isn’t alone in being skeptical of Ankara’s claims to be cleaning up its record. In 2014, Reporters Without Borders (RWB) listed Turkey as 154th on its World Press Freedom Index. The position is just below Iraq, and above Gambia. Some of the other countries that scored higher than Turkey included the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Myanmar, Russia and Zimbabwe. According to RWB the “Kurdish issue” is still a major cause of imprisonment for journalists in Turkey. Unfortunately, Kurds aren’t just repressed in Turkey.

No Surprises

By the time Wikileaks revealed the secret deal between Copenhagen and Ankara to bring down Roj TV, Bozo said it was “no surprise” to learn that some kind of political maneuvering had taken place behind the scenes.

“Ask any Kurd if they think it was a shock that even a country like Denmark that prides itself on its freedom of expression could be involved in a political deal causing damage to the Kurdish struggle and their answer will be ‘No,’” she lamented.

As Bozo explained, Kurdish people the world over have been sold out over and over by Western governments. “A similar thing happened to Roj TV’s predecessor MED TV, based in London,” she said.

The MED TV Saga: How One Man Juggled Censorship and Grenade Launchers

Like Roj TV, Turkish diplomats demanded MED TV be closed, accusing the organizations of supporting the PKK. For decades Turkey fought an armed conflict with the PKK, which long demanded an independent state in southern Turkey. Today, the PKK has rolled back its demands to autonomy and respect of Kurdish rights. However, MED TV’s closure came as the Turkey-PKK conflict was only just leaving behind its most bloody years. The decision to revoke the station’s broadcast license was made by the head of the U.K.’s Independent Television Commission (ITC), Sir Robin Biggam.
While Turkish security forces were massacring tens of thousands of Kurdish civilians and razing entire villages to flush out PKK fighters, the U.K. was a supplier of arms to Ankara, though not a major one. According to the Campaign Against Arms Trade, between 1990 and 1997 the U.K. was selling Turkey £42 million (around US$67 million at today’s exchange rate) of weapons per annum. At the forefront of the budding British arms trade with Turkey was British Aerospace (BAe) – a subsidiary of which had been manufacturing light arms in Turkey since the 1970s. As the ITC was handing down its verdict on Med TV, BAe was about to start manufacturing a new line of assault rifles and grenade launchers in Turkey for the Turkish military. Coincidentally, at the time Biggam was BAe’s director. Unsurprisingly, BAe’s 1999 shareholder meeting was besieged by protesters accusing Biggam of having a conflict of interest in the MED TV case.

Today, Kurdish activists sat MED TV’s forced closure was just another chapter in their repression – like the more reject shut down of Roj TV.

A Tradition of Struggle

From the UK to Denmark to Turkey, Kurds have been repeatedly denied a voice to celebrate their culture, condemn human rights abuses and in some cases, merely to speak their own language. All this is done in the name of counter-terrorism. Yet to politicians in Ankara, there is no difference between advocating basic rights for Kurds, and supporting terrorism.

A very real, long-standing human rights issue has been transmuted into a fictional threat to national security by years of anti-Kurd propaganda. Even when journalists’ viewed align perfectly with those of the PKK, describing them as supporters of terror can be tenuous at best. After all, as Aliza Marcus argued in Blood and Belief, the PKK’s “position” is the “dominant position” of most Turkish Kurds. Try squaring that circle.
However, the RWB says after decades of oppression, there are some signs of hope, “2014 is likely to be a decisive year for the future of civil liberties in Turkey,” RWB wrote, pointing to the August elections and “the unpredictability of the peace process with the Kurdish separatists.”

Yet Dicle said he remains skeptical the Turkish state will ever willingly change its stripes, arguing “the system sees change as its end.”

“However, we are hopeful of the struggle. The Kurds are struggling on all fronts. We come from a tradition in which Kurdish journalists were doing their job even at a time when journalists were being killed every day. We create our own space. Today is better than yesterday, tomorrow will be better than today,” he said.

For Dicle, Roj TV’s legacy is itself a testament to this fighting spirit. “Roj TV was also a school. The journalists who learned their trade at Roj TV later formed four TV channels,” he said.

Today, former Roj TV media workers are contributing to the 24 hour news channels Med Nuce and Sterk TV, Ronahi TV and the music channel Med Musik.

Bozo has other reasons to be optimistic, arguing today, “Kurds can connect online.” “They can mobilize masses and disseminate information and use (the Internet) to take action that raises awareness about Kurdish rights and perhaps, ultimately, turn the public opinion’s eye towards Turkey and its brutal treatment of the Kurdish people,” she said.

Thanks to a growing wave of Kurdish voices taking a stand against Turkish repression, Bozo said the world is becoming increasingly aware of the plight of the Kurdish people.
“The facade has cracked and the world seems more susceptible to Kurdish demands – reasonable ones to install our dignity and basic freedoms,” she said.

But both agreed the fight continues.

“Kurds have gone to jail, been tortured, killed and harassed for defending freedom of expression for decades and it is not going to end with the closure of Roj TV,” Bozo finished.

This article was originally published on teleSUR English. It has been slightly edited. The original version can be viewed here.

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