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Kurdish Language Broadcasts Hit Turkish Airwaves for First Time - 2004-06-09

For the first time, Ethnic Kurds across Turkey have tuned into Kurdish language television and radio broadcasts. The broadcasts in the two Kurdish dialects, Kurmandji and Zaza, are part of Turkey's effort to join the European Union.

For millions of Kurds throughout Turkey it was the moment they had dreamed of for many years - recognition of their long-banned mother tongue.

The half-hour-long program broadcast over Turkish state television was an innocuous mix of news, Kurdish folk songs and short reports on nature.

The Turkish government was quick to use the opportunity to remind viewers that it had gone a long way towards satisfying the EU demand for more democracy and respect for human rights. The EU Commission Ambassador to Turkey Hans Joerg Kretschmer was featured on the program praising Turkey for the reforms.

Until the early 1990s the Kurdish language was banned. Thousands of Kurdish activists and intellectuals were jailed for advocating free use of their own language, triggering harsh criticism from Turkey's European partners.

Turkish attitudes began to change in 1999, following the capture of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdish rebel group known as the PKK Around the same time, the European Union formally designated Turkey as a candidate for membership.

Use of the Kurdish language began to spread through news publications and music cassettes. But it was not until two-years ago that the parliament eased bans on broadcasting in Kurdish and teaching the ancient tongue as a foreign language.

Implementation of such reforms has been slow. A handful of Kurdish language courses opened their doors only last month because of a large number of bureaucratic hurdles. The Kurdish language television and radio broadcasts followed months of arguing between the reformist government and conservatives in Turkey's state broadcasting company.

Many Kurds say they welcome the new broadcasts. But they also say for now they cannot compete with Kurdish language programs aired from Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq and Europe, among them a television channel run by supporters of the PKK.