They call it the "Little Nation". Here Assyrians rub shoulders with Turks, Muslims debate with Zoroastrians and guerrillas share pre-show canapés with social democrats. The atmosphere is electric, alive with the hopes and emotions of an ancient, stateless people. This is the Belgian studio of MED-TV, the world's first and only Kurdish satellite television station - the home of a dream.
Broadcasting from Intelsat satellite 705, sitting somewhere over central Zaire, MED-TV brings 18 hours of news, features, entertainment and films daily to the Kurdish nation. It brings these not only to the Kurds living in and around Kurdistan - a territory split between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, the governments of which suppress its people - but also to those in the Kurdish diaspora. The station prides itself on unbiased coverage of all sides in the Kurdish question, reflecting all the religions, peoples and organisations party to the conflict. These include various Christian and Muslim sects, as well as Zoroastrians and a number of other small cults; plus Turks, Kurds, Georgians and Assyrians; and 70 different political organisations. Reflecting this diversity, MED-TV broadcasts in the three main Kurdish dialects - Kirmanci, Sorani and Zazaki - plus Turkish and Arabic.
MED-TV was set up "to develop Kurdish culture and language, and to provide communication for the Kurds", which might sound fairly mundane. But because the Kurds are a dispossessed nation, split by geography, religion, dialect and war, MED-TV's short history is one of turbulence, harassment, shoestring budgets and incredible determination. Mass arrests, simultaneous raids by Belgian special forces, Scotland Yard and the German anti-terrorist police, continual harassment by the Turkish authorities,signal jamming and an assault on one of the directors are just a few of the recent events which have made MED-TV's life a little different from other satellite stations.
For the first time in their divided history, the Kurdish people can now see their own lives, their own reality, reflected on television screens across the world. Iranian Kurds can speak to Turkish Kurds in phone-ins, and Iraqi Kurds can see how fellow Kurds lived in Europe. For a few hours every night the world's largest stateless nation has a home.
"Our history is short but the story is long," sighs Hikmet Tabak, MED-TV's principal director. A handsome, neatly-groomed 36 year old with a permanent cigarette glued to his lips, he looks tired. "I haven't eaten today and usually I won't until the evening. There isn't time."
Tabak fled his home on the Turkish/Armenian border in 1992, having spent 11 years in jail as a political activists, and was granted political asylum in the UK. He and 20 others launched MED-TV back in 1994, taking the name "MED" from "Medes", the ancient people from whom the Kurds are descended. They had just £5,000 in the bank.
A poet, author and film maker, Tabak was one of the few with any experience in programme making. None of the founders had any knowledge about running a satellite station - Kurdish TV journalists and directors are not that common. "But we saw our society slowly disappearing and knew we had to do something to stop this decline," he says. So they called British Telecom for advice. From there it wasn't "that difficult" to find out about satellite providers and draw up business plans. Following six months of market research, Roj NV was set up to make the actual programmes, with MED Broadcasting remaining as the parent company. A contract was signed with France Telecom for one year on the Eutelsat satellite. Although its production facilities are in Belgium, the station was licensed in London (where it has its corporate headquarters), which means that it is regulated by the Independent Television Commission (ITC). The ITC requires strict standards of impartiality and precludes control of a station by any political body. MED-TV's staff repeatedly trumpet the clean bill of health the ITC has given the station.
The launch programme in March 1995 mainly consisted of music videos. But it was an extremely proud moment for MED-TV staff. Tabak, watching in Germany, says tears welled in his eyes. Kurds wept openly on the streets of their historical capital Diyarbakir (in SE Turkey), and in other cities around the world. In the cafés, people crowded around TV sets. Two years on they remain loyal. Between 15:00 GMT and 20:00 GMT (early evening in the Middle East) Kurds across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East watch MED-TV, mesmerised. As many as 16 million of the 20 million Kurds in Kurdistan may be watching at the weekend. Peasant families have even been known to sell cars and whole herds of goats just to buy a satellite dish - often at considerable risk from local security forces. Makeshift dishes are now manufactured in the mountains of Kurdistan, while tapes of the programmes are sent as far afield as Australia and the USA.
"MED-TV was a big, fundamental change for the Kurdish people and Kurdish history" says Tabak. "It is unique for us." All the staff at MED-TV seem enthused by a similar sense of pride and destiny. They think this is the first step on the last, long part of the road to their own state. "You can't stop it," says Tabak, "whether you want to or not." Money pours in from private backers across the world, individuals and businesses, and from the Kurdish Foundation Trust, a pro-Kurd charity. They've raised £20m so far. (Although MED-TV intended to attract more revenue by selling commercial space to advertisers, "we haven't succeeded in that so far," Tabak admits.)
But the aim is not just to be a commercial success. "Our view is that MED-TV is not just Kurdish television, but the voice of the Kurdish people, who have been colonised," a member of the Kurdish parliament-in-exile, based in Brussels. "It's difficult to know what it's like for a whole people to be homeless. We want to go back to our homes. Our country is holy for us and if it wasn't we wouldn't sacrifice so many martyrs."
The repression is worst in Turkey, where a vicious civil war has been raging since 1984. Its constitution does not admit the existence of the Kurds, nor does it permit them any form of cultural expression. Amnesty International has continually condemned the Turkish regime for its actions, which include the murder and imprisonment of Kurdish journalists, intellectuals and dissidents by "contra guerrilla" death squads. One MED-TV writer, his voice choked with rage, told me how he had lived a haunted existence for several years, fleeing across Kurdistan after his two brothers and father were shot. All because his writings were critical of Turkey and supported Kurdish autonomy.
However, Turkey is a member of NATO and an applicant for membership of the European Union. It has powerful trading relations with most western European countries. And it believes, or possibly purports to believe, that the Kurds at MED-TV are terrorists from the PKK (Kurdistan Worker's Party), a Marxist-Leninist organisation fighting for independence. As a result, Turkey has applied considerable pressure to have the station closed wherever it operates, through diplomatic pressure (resulting in satellite service providers dumping the channel) and other means.
Ilhan Kilzihan, one of Tabak's fellow directors, was recently savagely beaten by four Turkish-speaking assailants in Germany. "This is not a personal attack," Tabak alleges. "This was carefully planned - it was interpreted to be a threat to all MED-TV's workers and supporters. But it hasn't worked. So, if these tactics haven't succeeded so far, what will they do next?" Tabak's father's house in Turkish Kurdistan was recently riddled with bullets by the police. He worries about his personal safety - sources inform him that the Turkish intelligence service, MIT, is looking for his address here in the UK. But he goes on, the only remaining founder and still manning the phones, ever ready for the next emergency. Outside in Regent Street shoppers rush by, oblivious, in the rain.
MED-TV's main studios lie in the sleepy town of Denderleeux, just a swift Mercedes drive from Brussels, in the heart of the flat Belgian countryside. Winter fog laps around the grandly-named Globe Show Centre, a bustling, breeze-block complex nestling at the end of a quiet cobbled street. The music from "Braveheart" plays stirringly over the PA as I walk in through the plate glass doors, providing an ironic touch.
Inside there are 6000 square metres of bar, kitchens, mixing, editing and control rooms, four studios, banks of monitors showing CNN and Reuters, and an incredible sense of vitality, camaraderie and purpose. Here and there sit small pockets of earnest-faced men and women, guests and researchers, greeting newcomers with a hearty "Roj Baj" (pronounced "rrurshj bash"), the traditional Kurdish greeting. They chain-smoke harsh cigarettes and drink sweet tea, and argue over religion and politics.
Everywhere there are young faces, men and women, volunteers who have travelled from across Europe - and sometimes further - who work without training and few resources. The reason MED-TV survives is that the majority of staff work only for expenses. Iranian, Syrian, Iraqi and Turkish Kurds work side-by-side, often in 24 or 36 hour shifts. When the staff don't know ho to do something, they bring in Belgian technicians - but rarely for the same thing twice.
"After 3,000 years it's a dream come true," says Turan Demir, MED-TV's friendly, slightly chubby news editor. Like many of the staff, he is young - 22 - determined and driven. He's also a Turk who doesn't speak a word of Kurdish. In his airy, plush-carpeted newsroom its not uncommon for supposed enemies - Turks and Kurds - to work side by side, hunched over Powermacs, chasing deadlines. A long row of monitors blares news from a dozen stations, and MED-TV's own screen flashes up, showing female PKK guerrillas carrying out a raid somewhere in the mountains of Kurdistan.
"I try to be as objective as possible," says Demir, who habitually poses rhetorical questions and then answers them. "Why? I try to show what Turkey is doing against the Kurds, which no-one is talking about. That's my first aim. My second is to promote a peaceful and democratic solution to the Kurdish problem."
Zana Serin (27), a suave chain-smoking Kurd from Sweden, is tonight's newscaster. He stumbles into the café after the late news at 10pm, looking extremely tired and red-eyed - yet he somehow manages to look cool. He has had no formal training as a news presenter, though he used to work as a freelance journalist back in Sweden. He used to tell the world about the Kurds. Now he tells the Kurds about the world. The irony appeals to him even at this late hour.
The news he presents appears extremely professional - particularly when contrasted to the Turkish TRT channel which I watch on various sets during my stay. Serin's grey suit and smiling visage, presented against a backdrop of a mountain valley, makes a welcome contrast to the fuzzy images of blond bimbos on the TRT screen. And while TRT shows various aging pop stars, the MED-TV news concerns Burmese protests against their military junta; a sit-in by mothers of murdered relatives in Istanbul (known as the "Missing"); week-old PKK guerrilla footage which has been smuggled out of Kurdistan with some difficulty; and coverage of MED-TV itself on Belgian television.
The journalists work long hours. They pride themselves on democratic coverage of all sides in the conflict and preservation of minority rights. For example, a weekly 40 minute slot dedicated to the Assyrians helps preserve their ancient and fast-disappearing culture. They're even given their own programming committee.
"If we have a political programme, we try and bring representatives from all sides, even if it is expensive," says Tabak as he pours thick, sweet coffee. With Turan Demir personally in charge of news, that is believable. A self-confessed control freak and workaholic, no-one is allowed in his control room. Sitting in the sauna-type hut in one corner of the newsroom, he says he simply rejects material if it isn't good enough. "I insist on complete control and usually get my way."
Over a cup of mud-like black coffee Serin, the newscaster, admits that "it's very difficult to be as good as CNN and the BBC. They have so many resources and we don't. We don't have many qualified Kurdish journalists. They can also send out crews quite easily to film their parliament or people. We have to work through telephones, unnamed journalists in Kurdistan, people who don't dare show their faces. That's very difficult, because with TV you rely on pictures! Ninety percent of people and journalists don't want to show their faces, so you can't get an image of them, which is very difficult. But in a way our viewers have got used to that."
The facelessness makes sense; producing news for MED-TV is not without danger. Demir can recall, with a pained look in his eyes, speaking to one of his staff as he was being arrested in Kurdistan. "I could hear him crying for help on the other end of the phone as the police burst in, but I couldn't do anything. Now he has disappeared. So has another one."
Sometimes, something can be done. A friendly journalist recently called from Turkey to say that a prominent Kurdish campaigner had been arrested. This old man had already lost two sons - both journalists - to death squads. Demir was able to call a lawyer, arrange for him to visit the main military headquarters and see the campaigner. He was even able to speak with him personally by phone in his cell. The next day he was released. "That never, ever happens. If you get arrested by these people, there's a 99.9 percent chance you will end up being found under a bridge somewhere. Dead." At this point he shows me video stills of Kurds massacred by Turkish troops when they crossed over from Iraq. Twisted, blackened corpses lie side-by-side on a cold-looking concrete floor. Demir has already shown the stills on TV.
Although news makes up 20 percent of MED-TV's total content the channel also shows documentaries, feature films, discussions and live debates (with callers from around the world and Kurdistan), music, folklore and education. There are even children's cartoons and a few horror films, dubbed into Kurdish dialects in MED-TV's Swedish studio. A number of staff are also sent as roving cameramen and documentary makers, comparing life for Kurds in different countries and reporting from Kurdistan itself.
Programmes have great names such as "Shokhand Sheng" (happiness and brightness); "Furum" (historical); "Got-U-Bej" (political discussion); and "Kursiya Gel" (People's Chair). This latter is the best. A smartly dressed female presenter has to field calls from a small audience and international callers. They tell her what they think of MED-TV content or the political situation abroad. I can't understand what is said, but one of the technicians is laughing. He explains that Kurdish peasants are not used to speaking on air; swearing is common.
After the show I share flat bread, yoghurt and olives with the two cameramen, Akkas and Kamarn. They both come from Kurdistan - one from the Turkish side, the other Iranian. We don't really have a common language - they use two dialects - so we settle on a bizarre mishmash of Kirmanci Kurdish (which I picked up on a previous visit to Syrian Kurdistan), French, Arabic and English. Later I stay with Kamil, an Alevite muslim who has been tortured by Turkish soldiers. They have all travelled from afar to be here.
This diversity is a source of joy for Evin Sidar (20), a Turkish Kurd and Dutch national. She works for the Kurdistan Committee, an information service that provides pro-Kurdistan press reports and news updates, and voices the enthusiasm young Kurds have for MED-TV. "It has brought a national unity to the Kurds. We have always been split - by dialect, religion, politics, geography. We were never united until MED-TV. From south to north to east to west there are people co-operating together, even ancient enemies such as the Kurds and Assyrians. It's a little nation here at MED-TV. It is a united, small Kurdistan.
"As a Kurd I would give everything to MED-TV. I would work voluntarily because I would know it's for me. That's what the Kurds think when they give money. They want it to grow up, to represent themselves.
"What people like so much about working here is the feeling they are a family and that they have created something themselves. We have never had the chance to speak or be Kurdish in public. The first time I saw MED-TV I thought it was amazing. I always saw European people and Turks as very modern and myself and Kurds as peasant people. That's what happens when you are educated by the Turkish system. People were ashamed to call themselves Kurdish; some would even deny it, and describe themselves in religious terms instead. MED-TV has changed that. It is a big part of our history."
She criticises an older generation which stayed silent, and like many of the younger Kurds privately supports some of the aims of the PKK. However, she laughs when I ask if she and the others here are revolutionaries. "No! But you have to be very committed to get success. You have to have the idea, your heart, your mind, everything, otherwise you won't do it." She has been lucky. Other female volunteers recently had to spend 42 days in Belgian prisons before being released without charge.
Since MED-TV's inception, the Turkish government has tried to eliminate the station by various methods. It has put pressure on European governments and resorted to commercial intervention, complaints to the ITC and smears in the Turkish press. Turkey maintains that MED-TV is simply a propaganda arm for the PKK. Tabak and others vehemently deny this charge, saying that Turkey labels anyone to do with the Kurds as "terrorists": "Our content is different to the views held by the PKK."
In April 1996, France Telecom, which had provided access to the Eutelsat satellite for MED-TV since the channel's launch, refused to renew the initial contract for another year. In June, Portugal Telecom refused to renew a three month contract for services off the same satellite. In early July MED-TV was forced off the air for 45 days when a third Eutelsat satellite provider, Polish Telecom, unilaterally broke its contract with the company. Hikmet Tabak maintains that Polish Foreign Ministry - under pressure from the Turks - ordered Polish Telecom to cancel the contract. The next day, Labour MP John Austin-Walker tabled an Early Day Motion in the UK Parliament, protesting the closure of the channel and deploring the willingness of European governments to do Turkey's bidding.
The Foreign Office's position is that the British government is "well aware of the Turkish authorities' concern. It is clear there are broadcasts which feature the PKK on MED-TV and our view is that we regard the PKK as a terrorist organisation. We are totally opposed to terrorism and will do all we can to stop the UK being used as a base for terrorism. This includes money raising and we will take any action and give assistance to our partners [to stop terrorism] in any way we can.
"Our legislation upholds freedom of expression, but this is subject to proper regulatory guidelines being observed, which are looked at by the ITC. The ITC has monitored MED-TV and last year warned the company about its contract and the broadcaster's obligation to observe impartiality in its programmes."
The ITC has indeed received numerous complaints about MED-TV from the Turkish authorities but its spokesman explains that they have not been upheld. "The Commission was asked to investigate the ownership, licensing and content of the service to ensure that it was not in breach of the ITC's regulations. There is a prohibition on any political body holding a licence, which extends to companies which are controlled by, affiliated to or an associate of a political body, or which are controlled by any person who is an officer of a political body. The ITC has no evidence to suggest that MED Broadcasting Ltd was prohibited from holding a licence by the effect of the law in this field and we would naturally take urgent action if any such evidence was brought to our attention.". In response to a further Turkish complaint that MED-TV should only be allowed to broadcast entertainment, the ITC continues: "A licence granted by the ITC does not limit service to programmes of a particular nature and there is therefore no question of the licence conditions being breached. Every person granted a licence must ensure that the service conforms with the requirements of the United Kingdom legislation and the provisions of the ITC codes. We have continued to monitor MED-TV, as we do any licensed service, and have not established that programmes have breached the licence conditions in any respect."
But there are other ways to stifle a satellite. On December 14th 1995, a live satellite broadcast was jammed by an unknown pirate interceptor. During this broadcast the PKK's leader, Abdullah Ocalan, had been due to declare a ceasefire in the war against Turkey. The interference was seen as a first in satellite communication history. When MED-TV's own transmission carrier intentionally dropped its signal, the evidence of a second transmission deliberately aimed at interfering with MED-TV's appeared on screens across Europe: the secam colour bars of someone else's television broadcast. There is no firm evidence as to whose it was.
In Turkish Kurdistan (south-east Turkey) there have been numerous reports of satellite dishes being smashed by soldiers. Viewers have been beaten up simply for watching MED-TV. In Iranian Kurdistan, satellite dishes are outlawed, but people bring theirs out at night or build false roofs in which to conceal them. MED-TV staff and viewers are now extremely excited about the new, small portable dishes expected from Far East.
The biggest attack on the station to date was a raid on the Belgian studios on September 18th 1996. Over 200 'special forces' personnel stormed the premises in the middle of the afternoon, rounding up staff and guests alike. They were made to lie face down and handcuffed, on the floor of the main hall. Talking and eye contact were forbidden. At the same time there were raids on the London offices and on the German homes of some of the staff. Tape machines were taken, computers, video news archives, disks, printers and other equipment. The damage done when doors were smashed down was still evident when I visited in December.
"I suddenly heard glass breaking and thought there might be a fire or something," says Turan Demir. "I was just going out of this room when I saw three men in black suits, armed to the teeth, with machine guns pointing at us. They were shouting 'hands up, freeze' in English and we were later told they had orders to shoot if there was resistance. I don't know what they expected to find, because there aren't any weapons or terrorists here. If there were, I would leave this second."
In all, 80 staff were arrested, and five were continually rearrested for 42 days - a process known in Belgian legal circles as "The Carousel". The aim of the raids, including simultaneous operations against the London offices and German homes, was to find evidence of money laundering, drug trafficking, prostitution and smuggling "illegals". None was found; all staff and guests were released. Everyone I met at MED-TV was extremely upset by these raids, yet they were adamant that the should continue with their work. Hikmet Tabak says that if the authorities want to look at their books, they're free to do so. He gave his to Scotland Yard six months before the September raid.
"It is very simple. We work with banks, we work according to the laws, we have legal advisors, we have accountants. We know that if we make a mistake we'll be gone. The pressure on us is not like that on another station." He laughs when I ask if he would like the opportunity for some competition. "Of course! We have even tried to help others set up, but nothing has come of it."
Reuters-supplied news archives are still being held by the Belgian authorities, which have frozen some US $10m of funds. Betacam machines damaged or removed in the raid have not been replaced. The studio's systems are mixtures of old equipment and state-of -the-art technology put together from scratch by people such as Demir; they are delicate, and did not take kindly to the removal of miles of cabling and a handful of monitors. And images of Kurds on tape could fall into the wrong hands. It is not unknown for the Turkish interpreters used by European police forces (needed to sift through the impounded material) to be infiltrated by MIT.
Back in London, Tabak admits, "If you ask me about MED-TV's programmes now, I would say they are crap, rubbish. We could have closed down until the New Year, to get everything right, but we wanted to show our people we could keep broadcasting." And so they have, even though many staff are now unable to renew work or residence permits, forcing the station to press on with skeleton crew. One evening in Belgium I sat watching Kawa Akrawi, a young director/producer and former film student recently arrived from Norway, running between his mixing and special effects desk and the Belgian lighting technicians, and then on to a studio to find a camera crew for the live music broadcast about to go out. He managed it - just - and kept a sense of humour as well. Next to him sat a smartly dressed young Kurd, answering the phone when needed. Only later did anyone realise that he was due to sing a live solo performance for the station.
Sets were painted by the cameramen, then abandoned as a discussion show was suddenly cancelled. Sober Islamicists filed out stoically and back into the café. Up in the control room, it became obvious that an old Belgian cameraman hired for the day couldn't get his angle right for the band performing on stage. Akrawi swore with his hand over the mike, but carried on regardless. The service always gets out, though. For the time being, that is enough.
MED-TV has a lot of support on the European left. Harold Pinter sings its praises: "It is a wonderful achievement and we must do everything we can to protect it from the forces which of course wish to destroy it or see it as a threat. It is an honest, remarkable and singular thing in itself. So I take my hat off to MED-TV." The International Press Institute - a global network of editors and media executives from 85 countries - condemned the recent raids as "a grave violation of the right to 'seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers' as guaranteed by Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights."
Turkish officials, while invited, do not deign to appear. Other Turks do. One Turkish academic says that he has never "experienced the complete freedom of expression that I've had in various MED-TV programmes. It is a medium through which democratic values like free discussion, dissent, criticism and tolerance could be transmitted to millions who never in their daily lives had the chance to indulge in such luxuries." The station has garnered support from minorities elsewhere who sense a kindred spirit, such as the Basques and Catalans.
While others worry about the media destroying national identity, MED-TV is proving that the opposite can be the case, even in the worst of circumstances. It is a remarkable unifying force, bring together - perhaps in itself creating - a nation. "You can't even sing in Kurdish, or show Robinson Crusoe or Alice in Wonderland in Kurdish, without being labelled terrorists," says Tabak. "But now there is at least a heartbeat at the same time. MED-TV has done this. If Turkey could have stopped us at the beginning, they would have been successful. But after two years, the Kurds can see their own lives on television, and it is not so simple to take this away from them. The Kurdish people have a right to broadcast, and as viewers to watch these broadcasts. If Western governments could look at it this way, they could help us instead of trying to break us. But even if we have to move to India, China or another part of the world, or the moon, we will continue to broadcast."
As I bid my farewell to the assorted crew, another recruit wanders in. She is a slight 20-year-old just arrived from Australia. She will be propelled onto millions of screens tonight as a news presenter. Untrained and nervous, she is nevertheless proud and determined. And I wonder, how can those who try and stop MED-TV ever hope to silence such passion?
You can buy this article, and seek new commissions, either by contacting me direct or my syndication agency, www.featurewell.com