DIYARBAKIR, TURKEY —
Groundbreaking Zarok TV was a first in Turkey: a children’s channel broadcasting in the Kurdish language. Its mix of popular international and homegrown programs was an instant hit. But Zarok TV is now off the air, and has been for several weeks. Its studios are sealed under an emergency rule decree, on charges of supporting terrorism. Apo Oguz, Zarok's director, said there was no warning before the closure.
"It was a big surprise for us," Oguz said, "because the content of this TV channel is neither political nor ideological. It is all about children, the culture, ways of life and language of the Kurds."
In terms of content, the children's channel director added, "we were broadcasting cartoons that are watched everywhere in the world, dubbed into Kurdish. There is nothing else."
The shutdown shocked families who came to depend on the channel, not only to entertain their children, but also to help them learn the Kurdish language, after decades when it was banned and shunned.
"It was midnight when my husband woke me up and told me about the closure of Zarok TV. I thought this was a joke. But unfortunately it was a sad reality," Cevahir Duzgun, whose children were avid fans of Zarok told VOA.
"I was very sad and heartbroken," Duzgun said, "and I just thought, how I am going to tell the children?"
Protests have spread across social media, as many Kurdish children refuse to give up Zarok TV without a fight.
The government has dismissed accusations that it is rolling back its own previous reforms, which had given media access to Kurdish speakers and Kurdish-language programs.
Muhammed Akar, who leads the ruling AKP Party in Diyarbakir, insisted the government remained committed to protecting Kurds' cultural rights.
"There is no operation or banning against a language or a culture, because there are many Kurdish channels, and they continue broadcasting," Akar said. "There is the state TRT Kurdi and other channels," he added, "but I have voiced my concern and sensitivity for Zarok TV's closure to the authorities, and I follow this situation closely."
More than a dozen Kurdish radio and TV channels have been shuttered under emergency rule. Kurdish cultural centers and theaters also have been closed. Those actions, and the closure of Zarok TV in particular, clearly signal that Kurdish cultural gains are under threat, said Idris Baluken of the pro-Kurdish HDP party.
“President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan sees Kurdish children watching cartoons in their own language as a threat to himself and to the Turkish state," Baluken said. His HDP People's Democratic Party, a pro Kurdish group, was founded in 2012 with a goal of challenging the divide between ethnic Kurds and Turks in Turkey.
President Erdogan "thinks Kurds have no right to learn Kurdish," Baluken said. "This is cultural genocide."
The European parliament has condemned Zarok's closure. For Diyarbakir's children, the TV channel cannot come back soon enough. It's a rare ray of sunlight in a war-torn region.