This week marks the 111th anniversary of the publication of first Kurdish newspaper, Kurdistan. The newspaper, written in Kurmanji but still using Arabic script, was published by Miqdad Midhet Bedirxan. The first issue of ‘Kurdistan’ went to press on 22 April 1898 in Cairo, then part of the declining Ottoman Empire. This week also marks the 10th anniversary of the closure of MED-TV on 23 April 1999 in London, when the British Independent Television Commission (ITC) revoked MED-TV’s licence to broadcast.
There are some interesting parallels with that very first foray into Kurdish media 111 years ago, the fate of MED-TV, and what is happening today with ROJ-TV. That is, Kurdish media in exile, or in the diaspora, relentlessly pursued by extra-national sources of political pressure in an effort to squelch any form of Kurdish voice in the media, regardless of location.
Midhet Bedirxan (Badr Khan, Badirhan, and other spellings) wrote in the editorial section of that first paper the following:
They [the Kurds] are not aware of what is happening in the world and in their neighbourhood. I have put myself to the task of producing this newspaper-God willing-every fifteen days. I have named it ‘Kurdistan.’ In this newspaper I emphasise the importance of education and science. Wherever there are great schools and institutions I shall report to the Kurds. I shall also inform the Kurds about any war that is taking place, about the deeds of the great imperial countries, how they fight and how they trade. No one has ever produced a newspaper like this, mine is a pathfinder.
Miqdad Midhet Bedirxan, Istanbul, circa 1880 (standing, 3rd from left)
Begun in Cairo, Bedirxan moved to Geneva to continue publishing, then back to Cairo, afterwards to London, then Folkstone (UK) and finally back to Geneva to publish the last two issues. Questions remain about the reason behind his frequent moves, perhaps forced to relocate because of his publication, or perhaps because he wanted to be closer to other Ottoman exiles. In the end though, ‘Kurdistan’ lasted only four years with 31 editions.
Regardless of the reasons for his frequent moves, the fact remains that the first Kurdish newspaper was published outside of Kurdistan itself because there was no room for Kurdish language press in Kurdish-speaking areas of the Ottoman Empire.
MED-TV too was a ‘pathfinder’, to use Bedirxan’s term. It was a pioneering effort at transnational broadcasting in Kurdish, but lasted less than four years, succumbing to Turkey’s relentless diplomatic pressure in Europe to shut the station down.
MED-TV’s studios were located in Denderleeuw near Brussels. Programmes were sent to London by satellite and rebroadcast by Eutelsat. Turkey jammed Eutelsat transmissions as MED-TV moved from one frequency to another. They strong-armed European governments into accepting their ‘mouthpiece of terrorism’ discourse, which is still effectively used today. In Turkey itself, security forces smashed satellite dishes and closed down shops where they were sold.
With all the political opposition, linguistic bans, and state censorship, this has been the norm for Kurdish media over the past century. ROJ-TV is under threat of being shut down in Denmark. Gün TV in Diyarbakir was just closed down last week. The newspapers Azadiya Welat (daily) and Özgür Mezopotamya (weekly) were slapped with one month publication bans last week by the Istanbul 13th Heavy Penal Court.
Across the border in the KRG, while some semblance of a free Kurdish press exists with many TV stations and newspapers, most media outlets are controlled by political parties. The political parties allow no criticism of the parties or their politicians. Hewlati, launched in 2001, was the first independent newspaper there. But it too has seen its share of attacks by the government.
Journalists in the KRG face detention by the Asayish (Kurdistan security forces), intimidation, and harassment. An Amnesty International report released last week (download here, 1.7MB, 56 pages) outlines some of the press abuses in the KRG and makes recommendations for improvement. See section 9 of the report, beginning on pg 42 for specific information on freedom of expression.
In today’s high-tech, connected world where blogging, social networking, and online journalism are the norm in the Kurdish diaspora communities in Europe, North America, and elsewhere, we must use these tools available to us to speak out against repression, abuses of freedom of expression, suppression of the Kurdish voice in the media, and harassment of journalists and media outlets in Kurdistan.
Abdulrahman, Kareem, Guide: Iraq’s Kurdish media, 04 December 2007.
Amnesty International, Hope and Fear: Human Rights in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. 14 April 2009.
Fatah, Rebwar, and Siamak Resaei Durroei. Centenary of the Kurdish Media, 1999.
Feuilherade, Peter, Med TV: Kurdistan in the Sky, 23 March 1999.
Hassanpour, Amir, A Stateless Nation’s Quest for Sovereignty in the Sky, paper presented at the Freie Universität Berlin, 07 November 1995.