In the transition from exile to autonomy, Iraqi Kurdish parties have set up the first Kurdish-controlled television channels in the Middle East. Their broadcasts now reach more than half of the estimated 3 to 4 million people in “Free Kurdistan.” 
The battle over who defines Kurdish culture is inherently linked to political control. The evolution of Baghdad’s Kurdish-language TV channel reflects a history of carrot-and-stick policies aimed at undermining resistance to the central government. Iraqi concessions to Kurdish autonomy in 1970 included adding Kurdish-language programs to the Arabic channel in Kirkuk. By 1972, the station had added a Kurdish-language channel with programs for other minorities. Its transmission covered the provinces of Kirkuk, Suleimaniya and Erbil.
All official mass media produced within the autonomous Kurdish region was censored by the government. Attracted by the prospect of reaching larger audiences, however, Kurdish writers, performers and artists from these provinces began producing works for the new channel. Older Kurds living in Zakho, a border town, say that before the 1991 uprisings they preferred Baghdad’s Kurdish station to the channels of neighboring Turkey (available at the twist of an antenna) or the national Arabic broadcasts.
Following the collapse of the Kurdish resistance movement in 1975, Baghdad embarked on an Arabization campaign that included the relocation of thousands of Kurds into concentration camp-like complexes within and outside of Iraqi Kurdistan. Among its efforts to make such repressive policies more palatable, the government distributed truckloads of color television sets to Kurdish civil servants, casino owners and Baath Party members. In 1979, 30,000 color sets were given to Iraqi Kurdish refugees repatriating from Iran. In 1986, Baghdad started a second Kurdish channel to service the Mosul and Dohuk districts.
Most government censors were Arabs, dependent on Kurdish translators to interpret Kurdish originated or adapted scripts. A Kurdish playwright described these security officers as “thugs who did not understand the art of theater.” In order to present Kurdish nationalist messages, Kurdish TV producers and playwrights used subversive subtexts. Sympathetic translators neglected to interpret such nuances to censor officers. For example, the Ministry of Information accepted scripts on the nationalization of British oil holdings and on Israeli oppression of the Palestinians — topics ripe for comparison with Baghdad’s economic and social repression of its Kurdish population. These parallels were highlighted by featuring key characters in traditional Kurdish clothing and using titles referring to Kurdish heroes and nationalist symbols.
Iraq later boasted of an increase in Kurdish language degree holders, and a significant number of these were earned by Arabs assigned to learn Kurdish for security purposes. “In the beginning,” recalls a Kurdish actor from Suleimaniya, “they really didn’t understand what we were doing. But by 1988, they had well-trained censors. Instead of reviewing a translated script, they sat in the studio and marked our performances word for word. We felt like they knew our culture better than we did.”
By the 1990s, television sets had reached necessity status in urban areas. “When Saddam was here, we were not free to move because of the curfews and military police,” a Kurdish sportscaster said. “Now we are free to move, but we still have no entertainment, no fuel to travel, and many are without jobs. So we spend a lot of time watching television.” A survey following the 1991 uprising showed that in Zakho and Dohuk, 31 percent of households had purchased new televisions as part of their initial furniture replacements.
During the uprising, government television facilities were priority targets. PUK leaders ordered their peshmerga to seize transmission towers and equipment. After people returned from exile, the PUK held a monopoly on opposition broadcasts until 1992 when electron campaigns for the Kurdish National Assembly generated two other channels.
Regular programming by the three channels averages five hours per evening and all day Fridays and other Islamic and Kurdish holidays. A typical evening begins with lines from the Qur’an, followed by cartoons, international and local news, traditional and contemporary music from Iraq and neighboring countries, a weekly local feature show, political commentary and an international film.
The programming reflects party policies, but the sponsors agree on the importance of Kurdish self-definition. Local producers create most of their own shows, covering topics on education, women’s issues, entertainment, Kurdish history, the performing arts, comedy, folklore, arts and sciences, medicine, sports and special programs for the region’s smaller Assyrian, Turkoman, Yezidi and Arab minorities. Show hosts and hostesses now enjoy status as local celebrities, though most had never seen the inside of a station before the uprising.
The new channels also provide Iraqi intelligence with a window into the north. Some Kurds fear that association with the opposition through their broadcasts will endanger relatives in government-controlled areas. Three doctors from Dohuk and Zakho declined on separate occasions to appear on politically neutral programs to discuss health issues. For Kurds who continue to cross into Baghdad-controlled areas to visit family or conduct business, appearance on TV increases their risk of being singled out at government checkpoints.
The new transmissions have provided public opportunities to address “forbidden” political issues and acknowledge once banned histories and heroes. The increase in foreign programming smuggled into the region has also served to break Baghdad’s stranglehold on information from the outside. Iraqi government films of atrocities have become important denominations for contemporary Kurdish identity. Other foreign and resistance-made documentaries in this genre include records of the aborted uprisings, the mass exodus, the Anfal campaign, the chemical attack on Halabja and videotapes captured from Iraqi security buildings during the uprisings that document torture and executions. “Saddam”s Crimes” are among the most popular video rentals. As one shopowner explained, “Some people sleep through ‘Rambo,’ but if you ask them about any part of ‘Saddam’s Crimes’ they can recall every point in detail.”
Since its first broadcasts in October 1991, the PUK channel has featured these films on a daily and weekly basis, reflecting PUK determination to convince northern Kurds to shut all doors to future negotiation for Saddam’s return. The other parties are less sure of the West’s reliability and the limits on Saddam, and their stations rarely show “Saddam’s crimes.”