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MED-TV: Kurdish Satellite Television and the Changing Relationship between the State and the Media

Since its inception, mass media in its various forms (newspapers, radio, television, etc.) has been used as both a tool of nation-states as well as a weapon against them. The power of the press to influence opinion and help interpret reality for its constituents has created conflict over what constitutes freedom of the press as well as what role the state should play in providing for or curtailing that freedom. Historically, the equipment needed to produce most mass media (printing presses, radio towers, television antennas, etc.) and the state's role in controlling the issuing of media licenses helped create an environment where the majority of state/media conflicts were addressed within the physical boundaries of the sovereign state. As a result, individual states retained the power to censor the media within its own borders through a variety of techniques (oppression and jailing of local journalists, physical destruction of printing presses or broadcast antennas, outlawing distribution, establishing and enforcing laws, etc.).

Relatively recently, the emergence of satellite television and the Internet has challenged the power of the sovereign state and introduced new components into the relationship between the state and the media. The development of these technologies has created effective channels for the distribution of media that can operate outside of the borders, laws, and policies of a single sovereign state. Satellite television, in particular, has the ability to reach a wide literate, non-literate, computer savvy, and non-computer savvy audience. Perhaps one of the clearest examples of the issues raised with the emergence of satellite technology is the case of the Kurdish peoples of Turkey and the history of MED-TV, the first Kurdish satellite television station. By examining what happened as a result of the emergence of MED-TV in 1995 and its subsequent closing in 1999, I want to explore how satellite television has changed the relationships between nation-states, how economics and sources of funding affect virtual nationalism, and what role transnational broadcasting plays in contributing to globalization.

Since 1918, the international borders of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria have divided the land in which Kurds live. The Kurdish nationalist movement began in the 1960s and '70s. Its aim was the establishment of a Kurdish nation-state for the 20 to 25 million Kurds throughout the world. In the 1980s and '90s Turkey aggressively tried to eliminate the Kurdish separatist movement, without success, leading to the rise of the PKK, as well as the migration of a number of Turkish Kurds to Western Europe. The presence of these new emigrants, as well as news about the guerrilla war in Turkey, worked as a catalyst for Kurdish ethnic self-awareness among Kurds already residing in Europe. This new Kurdish self-identity among an educated and wealthy Kurdish diaspora led to the development of a number of cultural activities, including the revival of the Kurdish language as a vehicle for political and literary discourse, the founding of Kurdish institutes, and the establishment of MED-TV, the world's first Kurdish satellite television station, licensed in Britain with studios in Brussels, Berlin, and Stockholm. Thus, "The Kurdish institutes, Kurdish print media and Kurdish language courses that operate in Western Europe, largely impervious to control by the Turkish State, have provided the Kurdish movement with instruments of nation building comparable to those traditionally employed by states."

After failing to achieve self-rule after years of armed struggle in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, many Kurds viewed the establishment of MED-TV in 1995 as achieving "sovereignty in the sky." MED-TV was granted a ten-year license in 1994 by the UK Independent Television Commission (ITC) and began test transmissions in March 1995. The Kurdish Foundation Trust, which provided financial assistance for MED-TV, stated the following aims:

To assist in the development of the cultural identity of the Kurdish people and the Kurdish language throughout the world; to establish, promote and maintain media facilities and resources to educate and inform Kurdish people; and to work for the relief of poverty and suffering amongst the Kurdish people.

Thus, MED-TV's agenda sought to undo the Turkish state's seven-decade-long policy of repressing Kurdish identity. Whereas the Turkish state had forbidden the teaching of the Kurdish language, MED-TV broadcast a classroom setting where children could learn their native tongue. Three newscasts a day (two in Kurdish and one in Turkish) provided a Kurdish interpretation of major events as an alternative to Turkish state-run broadcasts. Cultural programming and talk shows provided a platform for discussion on a number of issues that had previously been banned under Turkish censorship. The channel also included the Kurdish flag and national anthem as a part of its broadcasts. By operating under the protection of European civil liberties, MED-TV was able to achieve a freedom for the expression of Kurdish identity that had been denied under the application of the Turkish law. Media watch groups and human rights activists hailed the establishment of MED-TV as "a defeat of political censorship."

Turkey's response to MED-TV was varied. The state implemented a variety of internal and external activities aimed at shutting down the station. At its core, MED-TV challenged Turkish state sovereignty outright. Under the Turkish constitution one of the "fundamental aims and duties of the state is to safeguard the indivisibility of the country." MED-TV provided a direct challenge to the Kemalist aim of building a nation-state based on Turkish ethnonationalism. The presence of the Kurdish national flag and anthem in MED-TV broadcasts addressed Kurds not as an audience but as citizens of a Kurdish state, a state that appeared on MED-TV's maps of Turkey as Kurdistan.

Internally, the Turkish state engaged in the smashing of satellite dishes, the intimidation of viewers, dish vendors, dish installers, etc., as well as cutting off electricity from villages and small towns during prime time hours when MED-TV was on the air. The state held the threat of prosecuting advertisers who might buy airtime on the channel, considered illegal in Turkey, thereby limiting MED-TV's ability to collect revenues through advertising. MED-TV's initial satellite provider required audiences to adjust their dishes to an angle different from Turkey's satellite channels. This allowed police to detect viewers, resulting in more violence against them and eventually led MED-TV to change its provider as a way to protect its viewers. Finally, when Turkey jammed MED-TV's signal, preventing its reception from the Eutel-sat transponder, it represented a first in the history of satellite broadcasting. 

Externally, Turkey applied diplomatic pressure in an effort to get its European counterparts to shutdown MED-TV. A report in the BBC stated that "the Turkish government has brought pressure on any country which leases airtime to MED-TV." MED-TV reported that "certain companies supplying satellite space breached their contracts with MED-TV because of their own country's political stance." As a result, MED-TV had to regularly change its satellite transmission arrangements. Turkey accused MED-TV of being a mouthpiece and a front for the "terrorist" PKK (a claim MED-TV strongly denied) and called for European countries to shutdown the channel. In response to Turkey's accusations, the offices of MED-TV were raided and searched in Belgium and London in 1996. There were no subsequent charges or arrests. In 1999, the ITC revoked MED-TV's license citing "four broadcasts which included inflammatory statements encouraging acts of violence in Turkey and elsewhere" The ITC stated that the decision "was made purely on legal grounds." Supporters of MED-TV protested that the ITC caved into pressure from the Turkish authorities.

The events surrounding the establishment, operation, and shutdown of MED-TV shed light on the changing relationship between the media and sovereign states and whether or not satellite television truly represents the possibility of a greater freedom for the media. It reveals the importance of satellite broadcasts as economic trade routes in the sky, subject to the influence of nation-states, but operating outside of the physical boundaries of the state. It demonstrates the power of virtual nationalism and the challenge that it brings to the sovereign state, as well as the difficulties of sustaining a virtual nationalism. Finally, MED-TV's seeking refuge in Europe created a conflict between Turkey's national priorities and Europe's definition of civil liberties. This provided a means for bringing Kurdish issues to an international stage and ultimately led to changes in Turkey.

Not only did MED-TV need a license to broadcast to varied Kurdish populations, it needed access to a satellite that could broadcast into Turkey and other Kurdish regions. Satellites and their orbits are owned and therefore subject to both economic and political factors. Whoever controls these orbits, what Monroe Price calls "satellite trade routes," controls access to nation-states across traditional borders. To date, there is no international consensus on the rules that should guide the establishment of trade routes in the sky. The complexity involved in the ownership of these trade routes influences the types of media that are broadcast into particular regions. Three of the factors that affect the distribution of information via satellite around the world are "the complexity of corporate structures, the intricate relationship between business ventures and governments in the satellite field, and the controlled accessibility of contracts for the transmission of program services."

In the case of MED-TV, the selection of a satellite trade route was a tricky issue. The channel needed to choose a route that would involve the least possible intervention by the Turkish authorities. Its initial choice, Hotbird, required viewers in Turkey to turn their dishes in a conspicuous way, leading to persecution by the government. To protect its viewers, MED-TV shifted to Eutelsat. However, this change had legal and political consequences. Eutelsat was owned by a cooperative of state entities and therefore subject to Turkish political influence. This influence played a major role in getting MED-TV shutdown. Although Turkey was unable to control MED-TV by means of the traditional powers of a sovereign state within its own borders, the factors that influenced MED-TV's choice of a particular satellite trade route ultimately enabled Turkey to use its diplomatic powers against MED-TV to achieve its end.

MED-TV represents a major step in the use of media for the advancement of virtual nationalism as a challenge to the nation-state. Some analysts today suggest that globalization increasingly is rendering the state irrelevant not only as an economic actor, but also as social and cultural container. MED-TV was able to use virtual space, through the medium of television, to fortify, build, and help root Kurdish cultural and social identity outside of the direct control of the Turkish state. This directly challenged the cultural agenda of the Turkish state. In order to create this virtual nationalism, however, MED-TV was required to submit itself to a separate political constraint, namely the civil laws of the UK's ITC.

On the one hand, MED-TV's use of the civil liberties of Britain to obtain a license for broadcasting provided the station a certain amount of protection. In spite of Turkey's pressure on the British Government to shut down the station, London stated that "it (could) not do anything to stop the station from broadcasting unless it either (broke) British law or contravened its broadcasting license." On the other hand, MED-TV submitted itself to the ITC's requirements for broadcasting, which required "impartiality" and called for avoiding any broadcasts that would be "likely to encourage or incite to crime or lead to disorder." The definition of what type of broadcast constitutes a violation of these acts is subject to the opinion of the commission. Turkey, unable to use traditional state methods of censorship, took advantage of the UK's broadcasting laws to argue that MED-TV was a mouthpiece of the PKK, and therefore biased. When Turkey arrested the leader of the PKK in 1999, Turkey presented the ITC with a transcript of MED-TV's screening of live interviews in which Kurdish leaders urged people to take action against the Turkish government. This led to ITC's revoking of MED-TV's broadcasting license on "legal grounds."

One of the main difficulties encountered in MED-TV's virtual nationalism was the raising of revenue. The cost of running a satellite television station traditionally has made it difficult for non-state or non-business groups to have access to the medium. Added to the high costs of running the station was MED-TV's inability to raise advertising revenue. Two problems prevented it from selling airtime. First, the absence of a Kurdish state meant that MED-TV's audience did not form a single market in spite of its large viewing audience. Second, as mentioned before, Turkey would prosecute Turkish advertisers who might buy airtime on the channel. As a result, MED-TV's main sources of income came from donations from the European Kurdish diaspora. This opened MED-TV up to Turkey's claims that these sources of revenue were raised through unlawful means. Whether or not MED-TV raised its revenues through lawful means, the problems it encountered represent the difficulty of financially sustaining a virtual nationalism. Advertising still requires appealing to customers living in a physical space and subject to the laws of a sovereign state.

Finally, the case of MED-TV reveals how satellite television has the ability to contribute to the process of globalization by creating a public and international space that requires countries to interact on what have traditionally been issues internal to the sovereign state. MED-TV chose to shelter itself under the civil liberties of Europe and at the same time its transnational broadcasts served as a powerful force within Turkey. In Turkey's effort to limit MED-TV's liberties outside of Turkey's sovereign borders, the presence of Kurdish legal and political representation in Europe forced European politicians to take a stand on the Kurdish issue. As a result, a conflict that had previously been contained within the boundaries of Turkey's sovereign state imposed itself on the political agendas of European countries and the United States. This international forum and the ability to broadcast transnationally requires a new level of interaction between states in addressing the issue of how the freedoms allowed by one sovereign nation can be construed as transgressing another nation's laws across physical borders.

As Turkey has worked towards becoming a member of the European Union, the presence of the internationally recognized "Kurdish question" and Turkey's record of oppression has led to a variety of changes within Turkey, including greater freedoms for the Kurdish population of Turkey. A number of reforms have been implemented as a precursor to EU membership talks, including what happened on June 9, 2004, when state-run Turkish television aired its first-ever broadcast in the Kurdish dialect of Kurmandji. The power of MED-TV's satellite television channel to project its conflict, internal to a sovereign state, onto an international stage demonstrates a change in the ability and power of a sovereign state to act without the interference of other states.

In conclusion, the question must be raised to what extent satellite television, and the case of MED-TV, represents an example of greater freedom for the media in a world without borders. As we have seen, satellite orbits are the trade routes of the twenty-first century. The lack of clarity surrounding the legislation and control of these trade routes leaves the question open of whether they truly represent the possibility of greater freedom. These trade routes, although not strictly controlled by nation-states, are still heavily influenced by political pressure. In the case of MED-TV, the Turkish government was able to use its power to dissuade companies from supplying satellite space as well as use its diplomatic power to create an image of MED-TV as the mouthpiece of terrorists.

Although MED-TV found a modicum of refuge under the civil liberties of Europe, it was also constrained to operate under European laws, subject to interpretation. The vagaries of what constitutes an impartial broadcast and what is considered inciting to violence created an avenue for political pressure, leading to the revocation of MED-TV's license on legal grounds.

The cost of running a satellite channel can create an obstacle for greater freedom for the media, especially in cases of virtual nationalism. When costs are high and the ability to collection of advertising revenues is complicated, satellite broadcasting opens up the potential for the media to be greatly constrained by the desires of wealthy contributors. And because virtual nationalism lacks the power, protection, and resources of a sovereign state, it remains in a position of weakness in independently challenging existing state institutions.

That being said, the issues raised by the ability to broadcast across borders, especially the idea of virtual nationalism, present a major challenge to the way nation-states will be forced to interact in the future. The story of MED-TV demonstrates how the existence of virtual space has created a platform that requires nation-states to interact with one another on a new level. The existence of this virtual space carries the potential of creating a greater freedom for the media, in spite of many challenges. The economic, social, and legal factors involved in satellite television are changing the way the world communicates and leading the way towards a new stage in the history of the dynamic between nation-states and the media. 

About William Merrifield

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