Roj TV: The Satellite TV Channel that caused a Diplomatic Crisis

August 2009, the only thing that stood in the way of former Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen from becoming the 12th NATO Secretary General was strong objections from Turkey. As the US attempted to broker a deal in order to convince the Eurasian nation to change their mind, Turkish officials made it clear that their only grievances with Rasmussen were bizarrely related to his apparently weak response to a Kurdish-language satellite television station being broadcast from Denmark.

Although Rasmussen, then Danish Prime Minister, complied with Turkish demands and made inquiries into the television station’s reported links the the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), a US diplomatic leak from November 2010 [ANKARA00000302reveals that Turkey demanded that Denmark ‘clarified’ their stance on the broadcaster before Rasmussen could gain Turkish support.

A cable from Copenhagen [09COPENHAGEN241_a] exhibits Denmark’s discomfort at ‘sacrificing freedom of speech in exchange for a high-level post’, but nevertheless they intensified efforts to find ‘new angles’ to prosecute the station, despite it being declared innocent on grounds of ‘inciting violence’ in Danish courts twice already.

Prosecutor Lise-Lotte Nilas is described in the cable as becoming frustrated at Turkish pressure to fabricate charges against the broadcaster without any ‘specific evidence’, explaining to Turkish diplomats that “the state needs to show actual incitement to acts of terror, and not simply news or editorializing”.

Although the station in question, Roj TV, had a viewership of mere dozens in its native Denmark, it managed to bypass stringent regulations on Kurdish broadcasting in Turkey, which was completely banned until 2002 when the national broadcaster TNT began broadcasting 45 minute highly-censored Kurdish-language content with Turkish subtitles. Roj TV was not subject to these regulations in Europe and therefore could broadcast to Kurdish homes in Turkey with satellite TV.

Roj TV were ultimately fined nearly $900,000 by the Danish court after financial links were made between the station and the PKK, but continue to air to this day, even signing a broadcasting agreement with satellite provider Intelsat. Rasmussen’s efforts at lobbying the Danish administration to take a hard stance on Kurdish broadcasting paid dividends as Turkish officials dropped their objections towards him and went on to serve NATO as Secretary General from August 2009 to October 2014.

The issue of suppression of Kurdish media has become a key dispute in Turkey’s bid for membership of the European Union. EU reforms have led to a further loosening of regulations, with Kurdish programming now taking up four hours a week of the national broadcaster’s schedule, albeit still having to avoid contentious ‘political’ issues that are the prerogative of station managers.

Deniz Gorduk, news manager of Gun TV, a local Diyarbakir station, says Roj – which, among its various programs, shows children’s cartoons in Kurdish – fills a vacuum created by the Turkish governmental regulations.

“There are so many limits on us and that is why Roj TV is so popular,” he says.

In the unofficial capital of Turkish Kudistan Diyarbakir, where satellite dishes now adorn even the humblest village homes, the Turkish government’s efforts to shut down Roj TV are now being added to the list of grievances. In January, more than 50 mayors from surrounding provinces sent a letter to Denmark asking it to keep the station on the air.

“When Roj TV started, it was like a sun rising,” says Ali, a tailor who asks that only his first name be used. “We only have Roj TV and now Turkey wants to shut it down.

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