In the latest episode of Over To You, host Rajan Datar discusses how the BBC World Service’s shortwave transmissions are being affected by jamming in parts of Asia. It’s a short but informative episode.
Over To You explores the way that the World Service’s shortwave transmissions are being affected by jamming in parts of Asia, following up from an email from a listener in West Bengal who was having problems listening to the service. With the help of the World Service’s head of business development, we find out how jamming of the World Service shortwave transmissions inside China is spilling over into neighbouring countries, and explore what the BBC can do to redress the situation through international organisations.
Student in Uganda tunes an Ears To Our World self-powered shortwave radio. (Photo: ETOW partner, The Empower Campaign, Uganda)
Wednesday, February 13th 2013 is World Radio Day. UNESCO describes World Radio Day as “a day tocelebrate radio as a medium; to improve international cooperation between broadcasters; and to encourage major networks and community radio alike to promote access to information and freedom of expression over the airwaves.”
This past Saturday, I found the irony a bit much to take: on one hand, there was Syria, a highly volatile country struggling for stability, while on the other hand, there was…Canada? Both, on the same fateful day, effecting media shut downs.
I’ve mentioned numerous times how vulnerable the Internet is to simply being shut off. In most cases, this happens because those in power are attempting to control free speech and communications. Unfortunately, it’s not an infrequent occurrence; if anything, it’s a growing trend. In this NPR story from Saturday, Andrew McLaughlin, former White House adviser on technology policy, was quoted as saying:
“The pattern seems to be that governments that fear mass movements on the street have realized that they might want to be able to shut off all Internet communications in the country, and have started building the infrastructure that enables them to do that[.]”
Renesys map showing vulnerable internet networks by country (click to enlarge). Note that most of the countries with low risk are those who have (or had) a strong international broadcasting presence on shortwave.
So what countries are technically vulnerable to this sort of shut down? It depends to a great extent on the diversity of a state’s communications infrastructure, and the number of its service providers that are connected to the rest of the world. Syria, sadly, is among the most vulnerable. James Cowie, at the Web monitoring firm, Renesys, was recently quoted in the Washington Post describing just how easy this shut-down process is:
“Make a few phone calls, or turn off power in a couple of central facilities, and you’ve (legally) disconnected the domestic Internet from the global Internet.”
Information of last resort
RCI’s Sackville Transmission site went off the air Saturday, December 1st.
True, shortwave radio is not a comprehensive replacement for the Internet any more than it is for mobile phone service. It lacks the peer-to-peer connectivity of either medium. But it is interactive and accessible.
Indeed, recent history proves that, when all other communications systems are shut down, information still leaks from a country via various means. This very information is often broadcast by international voices over every medium, including shortwave radio. So there exists an intimate interaction between those living under a repressive regime and the foreign press that is impossible to deny. Shortwave radio is, in a very real sense, an arm of the foreign press and diplomacy, one that still reaches out to the citizens of oppressed countries.
What about satellite?
To be fair, did Egyptians seek out shortwave radio when their country’s Internet went down? Not all, but quite a number did. In truth, satellite TV is king in many growing countries, and the information found on satellite was still flowing freely. Therefore, many turned to satellite.
So is shortwave radio still needed? Of course. Satellite TV, like the Internet, is much easier to jam or block. Shortwave radio is the only broadcast medium that streams at the speed of light across borders with no regard for those in power, that requires no subscription or expensive equipment, and is 100% untraceable (provided you listen through headphones).
I’d like to think that even the UN or similar state networks would consider pooling funds to keep shortwave radio broadcasters on the air to protect this valuable resource. Still, it’s those countries with the wealth, the stability, and the democracy, that feel shortwave is so dispensable. When budgets are being cut, governments view their foreign broadcast service as a quick chop. They don’t realize that an international radio voice is actually the most reliable, most cost-effective arm of foreign diplomacy–especially in areas of the world where information does not flow freely. In such regions, they have a captive audience at pennies a head.
So, who will be next country to shut down their Internet services and leave their citizens in the dark? Follow the headlines. And who will silence the next shortwave broadcaster? Follow the money.
This is a fascinating Radio 4 documentary about a BBC service that typically had a target audience of one individual. Before the proliferation of telecommunications in the 1990’s, the BBC’s SOS message service acted as a communications link of last resort for people who needed to be urgently connected with loved ones.
This radio documentary reminded me of the fact that, even in our information age, radio can interact with a large audience of listeners who are doing everything from working to driving in a uniquely efficient manor.
Radio 4 used to broadcast SOS messages – “could Mr and Mrs Snodgrass, believed to be travelling in the Cotswolds please ring this hospital where their auntie is dangerously ill”.
Eddie Mair wants to know more about them. He hears from listeners whose lives were dramatically changed through the SOS service. These short messages were transmitted regularly on The Home Service, and later Radio 4, for much of the 20th century. They appealed for relatives of dying people, often on holiday and thus, before mobile phones and internet cafes, uncontactable, to return home before it was too late.
Eddie invited readers of his Radio Times column to send in their recollections of the SOS Message Service, and little did the PM Presenter expect such a rich response of vivid memories, first person experiences and in one case, unexpected consequences as a result of the broadcast.
Some of these remarkable testimonies are told, in understated, haunting and even cheery ways in this narrative tribute to radio, and a nation, – “as it was”. Best summed up by the tale of a six year old girl in the North East who while staying with a relation in 1958, was hospitalised with a very serious illness. She survived and tells Eddie her story. In the days of very few domestic telephones, the BBC’s SOS message brought her parents to her bedside from London courtesy of an observant member of the public who heard the message and recognised the car number plate that had been announced.
The SOS Service, was the vision of John Reith, the first General Manager, and later Director General of the BBC. But its heart was the listener, as Eddie reveals.
Zigon does, however, have electricity – unlike 90% of Burmese villages – installed by the government late last year. This has meant a number of changes. One of the more significant is the arrival of television. A satellite dish has now been installed at the village tea shop, largely used to watch state TV networks and Premier League football.
Though censorship has been eased in recent months, information is still tightly controlled. News of the Arab revolts last year was blocked for weeks – though millions use cheap Chinese-made radios to listen to the BBC, Voice of America or other networks broadcasting in local languages.