In what could be a very significant move, Turkey's state broadcaster (TRT) is set to launch a Kurdish-language channel in the beginning of 2009. Full details about the channel, called TRT 6, are still sketchy, but it promises to provide much more than the pitiful current level of public broadcasting in Kurdish, limited to a few hours a week and hardly watched.
Dedicating a channel to Kurdish programming is an important recognition of a language that's the mother tongue of millions of Turks. But TRT 6's real aim, it appears, is to undercut the appeal of Roj TV, a Kurdish satellite network broadcasting out of Europe, that is extremely popular among Turkey's Kurds. Ankara has accused Roj of being a mouthpiece for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and of spreading anti-Turkish propaganda. But the channel, which shows a mix of news, music videos and other programs, has been able to become as popular as it is because there has been no other alternative out there.
Taking on Roj might be a tough job, though. The network's appeal, besides that it broadcasts in Kurdish, is based on its independence and the fact that it shows things no Turkish channel would dare do, such as footage from the PKK's camps in Northern Iraq or performances by Kurdish musicians who are banned in Turkey because of their political views. The channel also acts as a kind of Kurdish grapevine. I was in the predominantly-Kurdish southeast of Turkey a few years ago working on a piece about Roj TV and met with a family whose son was a PKK guerilla who had recently been killed in a clash with Turkish forces. When I asked them how they found out about their son's death, both parents told me that it was through Roj. I heard similar stories from other people.
If TRT 6 puts on some innovative programming, or at least programs that aren't produced with a very heavy state hand, then it and Roj TV might be in for an interesting ratings battle. We'll be watching.
(A Kurdish woman and her daughter watching Roj TV in their living room in Diyarbakir, Turkey. Photo by Yigal Schleifer)