Iraqi Kurdish Satellite Channels: From Media Obscurity to the Dream of International Broadcasting

By Shirzad Sheikhani
Arbil, Suleymaniya
Translated by David Wilmsen, TBS contributing editor

The Kurds 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.

The age 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.

The first 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.

The success 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 TV.

Station 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.

Aqrawi 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."

He went 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 ethnicities."

Two Kurdish 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."

These 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.

The KurdSat 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.

For that 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."

Both KurdSat 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."

Asharq Al-Awsat took a tour through the offices and newsrooms of the two stations to get a close up of their work.

First 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.

The same 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."

About 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.

Khanqini 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

Reproduced with permission from Asharq Al-Awsat, Friday 26 September 2003, issue 9068, p. 13.
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