Minority media rights, terrorism laws at issue in Roj TV case

French satellite provider Eutelsat announced yesterday it is suspending Kurdish satellite station Roj TV after a Danish court last week levied a hefty fine against the satellite station for promoting terrorism. Eutelsat’s decision comes despite Roj TV’s appeal before the Danish High Court, which is pending. The case has implications for how media content is evaluated, the rights of minority media, and how terrorism laws are balanced with human rights.

On January 10, following years of pressure from Ankara, the City Court of Copenhagen ruled that between February 2008 and September 2010, the TV channel had “one-sidedly and uncritically disseminated (Kurdistan Workers Party) messages, including incitement to revolt and to join the organization.”  The court said the Denmark-based TV channel was financed and controlled by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is designated a terrorist organization by the European Union, Turkey, and the United States.

The court fined the two companies behind Roj TV 5.2 million Danish crowns ($894,800), but did not follow the prosecution’s recommendation that the station’s broadcasting license be revoked.

Turkey’s Minister of EU Affairs and the Turkish ambassador to Denmark strongly condemned the fact that Roj TV was found guilty of promoting terrorism but is still allowed to broadcast. The minister claimed Denmark is encouraging a Breivik-like mentality (referring to Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people in Norway in July) and the ambassador asked rhetorically whether Denmark would also allow broadcasting of child pornography, according to news reports.

According to the court, there was no legal basis for it to revoke the license, which is issued and managed by the independent Radio and TV Board. However, Danish politicians who were critical of the decision appear determined to change this: The Danish Minister of Justice and the Danish Minister of Culture issued a press release stating that the Danish government “will now make sure that the Danish legislation provides all sufficient measures to react against radio and TV stations promoting terrorism.”

Ankara has long sought a ban on Roj TV, which has been based in Denmark since 2004. Over the years the Turkish Embassy in Copenhagen has filed three separate cases with the Radio and TV Board. In all three cases the Radio and TV Board has looked into whether to revoke Roj TV’s license because of its close relation to PKK, but it never took action. The board argued that Roj TV imparts the view of the PKK but does not take a stand for or against those views and actions, according to Politiken.

In 2005, the embassy also filed a criminal complaint against Roj TV for violating Danish terrorism laws. The ruling last week came as a result of that charge.

Not much happened in the first four years after the embassy filed charges. But in 2009, when every member of NATO except for Turkey supported then-Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen in his bid to be the next NATO secretary general, things started to move. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi were both cited in the media as saying Fogh Rasmussen promised to shut down Roj TV if Ankara supported his candidacy. U.S. embassy cables disclosed by WikiLeaks have since indicated a similar line of events. Fogh Rasmussen, who now is NATO secretary-general, has denied making promises to shut the station. In 2010, the Danish government decided to prosecute Roj TV.

In light of the conviction, the Radio and TV Board has said it will consider reviewing the basis for Roj TV’s license, though it’s unlikely it will do so before the High Court has ruled in the appeal. Eutelsat did not wait that long. In a press release Thursday, the satellite provider said “under these circumstances, Eutelsat has decided to suspend the presence of Roj TV on its satellites in order to avoid incurring criminal liability as an accomplice to terrorist activities.” Before Eutelsat’s suspension, news reports said Roj TV had a potential audience of tens of millions of Kurdish viewers across Europe and the Middle East.

On Thursday, Roj TV was still able to broadcast in Western Europe and parts of Turkey, Roj TV Director Imdat Yilmaz told Danish news agency Ritzau, adding that the signal is difficult to receive in the parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey that make up Kurdistan, according to the Kurds.

With the first consequences for Roj TV already a reality, here are three broader press freedom implications to consider while the High Court appeal is pending. (Further appeals could take the case to the Danish Supreme Court and even the European Court of Human Rights):

First, how is one-sided coverage defined?

No one would argue that Roj TV’s broadcasting is not biased or even one-sided in favor of the Kurds. But in one of its rulings, the Radio and TV Board stated that “imparting information [would] not in itself be covered by the term ‘incitement.’ A different interpretation would prevent a free press from informing and educating about […] facts and events in society and the world.” The court, however, concluded that this one-sided coverage is a violation of Danish terrorism laws.

This qualitative evaluation of Roj TV’s content — or indeed any content– is by its nature not an exact science. However, it is problematic if Roj TV’s defense lawyer, Bjørn Elmquist, is right when he claimed in Arbejderen that footage presented during the trial only represented 0.003 percent of all of Roj TV’s production and had been selected only by the prosecutor. The defense lawyer furthermore said he was not allowed to present alternate video material to the court that would give a more nuanced insight into Roj TV’s broadcast.

Underlying the court’s ruling is the assumption that a Kurdish TV station is in a position to produce nuanced and balanced stories. To fairly evaluate Roj TV’s content, it is vital to understand the challenges faced by journalists in Turkey, especially Kurdish journalists covering the Kurdish struggle for equal rights and independence. Turkey has a reputation as one of the world’s worst violators of press freedom. In 2005, Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan refused to take part in a joint press conference with then-Danish Prime Minister Fogh Rasmussen because the Danes would not expel a Roj TV reporter from the press conference. A more recent example is the arrest of 29 pro-Kurdish journalists in raids across Turkey on December 20.

Even if Roj TV wanted to, it is not always possible to get both sides of the story.

Second, as always in tricky press freedom cases, it is worth revisiting the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

Article 19 states; “everyone has the right… to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Oluf Jørgensen, a prominent expert on media law from the Danish School of Media and Journalism, argues that according to European Court of Human Rights’ precedents, a media outlet or a journalist cannot be expected to distance themselves from views or actions presented by sources in a TV segment.

As a matter of fact, Article 19 ensures minorities’ right of access to a media outlet broadcasting in a specific language focusing on certain views.

“The right to freedom of information and the right to freedom of speech must not be limited by country borders. This is a key element in more recent interpretations of the right to freedom of speech. People with a special interest, a specific language, or a separate culture have the right to be able to access a media outlet. The courts’ ruling is not in correspondence with the human rights.” Jørgensen told Politiken in reaction to the court ruling.

Thirdly, what precedent would a guilty verdict create?

One peculiar thing in this highly unusual case is the fact that no person has been charged. According to renowned Danish journalist Lasse Ellegaard, the case represents the first time a Danish court has convicted media companies for promoting terrorism without pressing charges against the people behind the companies. Ellegaard speculates that this is because none of the people behind Roj TV could be found guilty of any terror-related crime.

Also, the court has not taken the special rules and norms that apply to the press into consideration, especially the right to freedom of speech. Jørgensen assumes this is because the case involves laws on terrorism. This is a significant and worrying development for press freedom.

Of course, there is no justification for any media to incite to violence. But the consequences of closing Roj TV as a result of on one-sided coverage would be significant. It would not only shoot down one of the Kurds’ main sources of information. It would increase the likelihood that other minority media will face similar charges.