Kurdish Satellite Channels: From Media Obscurity to the Dream
of International Broadcasting
By Shirzad Sheikhani
Translated by David Wilmsen, TBS contributing editor
have suffered greatly from a lack of world media attention,
to the extent that even their political leaders are complaining
of it. They have been cut off from world media, including Arab
channels, which used to support the old regime at the expense
of their national cause. Indeed, some of them are of the opinion
that the Arab media's support of the Iraqi regime provided a
prop for Saddam in his killing and generally impoverishing the
Iraqi people by covering up his crimes and whitewashing his
image. Many of these leaders believe that what the Arab media
are doing now by way of tendentious propagandizing against the
political activities emerging on the Iraqi scene is nothing
more than a continuation of their same disgraceful sympathizing
with the former regime.
of globalization, the rapid changes taking place on the international
stage, and the higher profile of the Kurdish issue in some international
circles has led the leadership of some Kurdish parties to call
for greater concentration on world media to win international
sympathy for the Kurdish cause. The latest developments in the
perpetual confrontation between the former regime and the international
community assisted the Kurds in creating a place in the interests
of international circles and for that reason thrusting Kurdish
media into the international arena.
Kurdish international broadcaster was the satellite channel
MEDTV, owned by the Kurdish Workers Party under the putative
leadership of Abdallah Ocalan, now imprisoned in Turkey and
facing execution. That station was financed entirely by the
Party, which had a strong presence in Turkish Kurd communities
in many European countries, and relied upon donations from those
communities. Nevertheless, Iraqi Kurds, although they did benefit
from the launching of the station and did utilize it for a time
to broadcast their own propaganda and in placing their cause
before world opinion, were also ignored by it, preoccupied as
it was with its own party affairs and with veneration of the
party figurehead, who appeared daily on every program broadcast
by the station.
of MEDTV propelled the two main Iraqi Kurdish parties to try
to duplicate the experience. It fell to the Kurdistan Democratic
Party, led by Massoud Barzani, to begin. In 1999 while Saddam
Hussein was still in power and Iraqi media was still held captive
by the state, it inaugurated the satellite channel Kurdistan
general manager Karawan Aqrawi says that the idea had been brewing
in the minds of some of the Kurdish leadership, seeing it as
imperative to work toward establishing a satellite channel through
which the Kurdish people could more effectively address world
opinion and express their national aspirations. At the same
time it would put across a clear message that the station is
calling for fraternal coexistence between Iraqis, striving toward
broad democracy, spreading the concept of civil society, and
resisting the racist extremism that the Iraqi powers were practicing
against the Kurdish people.
said, "We felt that we were rushing into an adventure of
uncertain outcome with very limited possibilities, but we were
determined to take the plunge. It is the right of the Kurdish
people, just as it is of any other people, to take advantage
of new technology and the opportunity presented by globalization
and the general concept of freedom of the press. The Kurds should
not remain isolated from the developments in various fields
of human endeavor taking place all around them."
on, "We succeeded to a certain extent in putting in place
the basics of a free media that fit with the demands of the
era, even though our ambitions were naturally larger. With the
fall of Saddam Hussein and the temporary absence of Iraqi satellite
channels, we feel that our responsibilities have doubled, especially
with regard to acquainting the world with a true picture of
the civil society we are trying to implant in Kurdistan, which
can become the model for an independent Iraq, and to assert
our desire to coexist with other Iraqi tribal groupings and
satellite channels reach most Middle Eastern countries and North
Africa, and lately they have expanded their range into North
America, Canada, and Australia. According to Awat Najm El Din,
executive director of KurdSat, administered by the Patriotic
Union of Kurdistan, "we enjoy complete independence regarding
the message we adopt in our live open-mike talk shows. Our listeners
say everything and often cross the boundaries to express views
opposing the policies of the Patriotic Union. This affirms the
breadth of freedom granted to our political programs."
channels started off in 2000 with home video cameras and monitors
but were then able to obtain a few mixers and new recording
equipment, and computers for use with digital audiovisual recording
equipment and cameras.
director adds that aside from its mission of addressing the
Arab street and introducing the Kurdish cause to the world,
the second goal is to reach the Kurdish communities scattered
all over the globe.
reason, some children's shows are broadcast very late at night,
sometimes as late as three in the morning. "They are broadcast
at two different times, once in the morning for the children
in Kurdistan, and again late at night for America and Australia,"
says Najm El Din. When asked what is the use of broadcasting
such programs to children who have grown up abroad and who may
only see their families in Kurdistan every few years, he answered,
"It works; I was in America and I asked many Kurdish children
if they watch our programs and I found that most of them do,
and they request even more of them. Their parents appreciate
them too, especially those that teach Kurdish. They themselves
want to maintain the language of their country and they want
their children to learn it."
and Kurdistan TV cooperate with international stations beginning
with the recent war against Iraq. Najm El Din attested that
his station was coordinating with CNN, also with Abu Dhabi and
the Associated Press. Similarly, Kurdistan TV was coordinating
with Kuwait satellite television and with Abu Dhabi. Both stations
have contracted with the Voice of America to broadcast its programs
and newscasts in the local language.
About the ability of the Kurdish channels to break the barrier
keeping them from reaching the Arab street, which other satellite
channels have exploited to the utmost with stories of plots
against the Iraqis and political groups propagated by the former
regime, Karawan Aqrawi is completely frank as he speaks painfully
about the discourse of some Arab satellite channels: "I
think the Arab street itself is unable to clear the government
media barriers in their countries as they ought to. Those media
naturally reflect the official policies of the rulers who generally
control public opinion in those countries. If we with our feeble
capabilities have been able to influence the Arab sphere, then
we may have been greatly exaggerating the power of some of the
prominent satellite channels. Take the position of the Arab
states towards the situation in Iraq, and this is also the position
of the majority of the Arab channels: they are looking at the
situation in Iraq with a constrained perspective. Some of the
Arab satellite channels are writing a cultural, political, and
intellectual script that they want to impose on the Arab street.
And yet those stations themselves have not been able to reach
an understanding of what is happening in Iraq. For that reason,
they are promoting a thoroughly backward form of Islamicism
and an extremely narrow factionalism. This media policy is inflicting
harm on the Iraqi people."
Al-Awsat took a tour through the offices and newsrooms of
the two stations to get a close up of their work.
stop was the KurdSat news department, where its chief, Barzan
Sheikh Othman, told us that the department supervises editing
of local and national news from a network of correspondents
in all Iraqi cities including the capital. Correspondents in
surrounding countries and the Arab states send daily reports
which are broadcast in Kurdish, Arabic, and English. The station
also has contracts with VOA and AP to use their news.
contractual arrangements and sources are used by Kurdistan TV,
says Abdel Rahman Said, chief news editor of the station. "There
is a permanent team in Baghdad covering news from the south
of the country to the capital, while other correspondents are
sent to cover news in the North."
the Arabic language coverage at KurdSat, Arabic section chief
Fadel Sahbat Khanqini says, "The time devoted to Arabic
broadcasting was only one hour, then another hour was added.
Now with the addition of personnel in the section, it has reached
between five and six hours per day." He added that the
Baghdad office has been intensively active for the last few
months, especially with the shooting of the mass graves uncovered
in the southern provinces like Najaf, Karbala, Samawa, and Nasiriyya.
It has also made several visits to the dreaded Nuqrat al-Salman
prison in the Iraqi desert to cover the mass graves there and
broadcast the pictures to the world.
said that the channel is now building a land station in Baghdad
to receive satellite broadcasts and translate them to the local
channel which will cover the entire city. He hopes that when
the Arabic section increases its activities, the land station,
which will be completed in a few weeks, can be transformed into
a permanent Arabic satellite station in Baghdad. TBS
with permission from Asharq Al-Awsat, Friday 26 September 2003,
issue 9068, p. 13.