World Television Day: Satellite jamming and freedom of expression

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21 Nov 2011



ARTICLE 19 is deeply concerned by the growing number of cases where reception of television and radio services by citizens in one country is deliberately prevented by the use of various "jamming" mechanisms. One example is the ongoing satellite jamming of LuaLua TV - a London-based Bahraini current affairs television station - which had its satellite signal jammed only four hours after the channel was launched on 17 July 2011.

ARTICLE 19 is issuing this statement to bring renewed attention to jamming, a practice thought to be confined to the cold war having disappeared with the fall of the Berlin Wall.  In fact, deliberate government intrusion of broadcaster satellite signals (or “jamming”) is far more common than is widely acknowledged and reported, and a growing cause of concern for broadcasters around the world. The case of Lualua TV is just the tip of the iceberg. The satellite signals of a number of media outlets, including BBC World Service, Voice of America, Deutsche Welle and Al Jazeera have been persistent targets for governments keen to censor critical reporting and voices. 

ARTICLE 19 believes that the deliberate jamming of broadcasters such as LuaLua TV is in clear violation of international human rights law regarding freedom of expression and interferes with both the rights of individuals and broadcasters to receive and impart information, as provided by Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

To mark World Television Day, ARTICLE 19 calls on all governments and international organisations to condemn this violation of the rights to freedom of expression and information.

ARTICLE 19 also calls on governments, broadcasters and satellite providers to take all necessary measures to protect against and prevent the deliberate jamming of foreign-based, satellite broadcasters. These are part and parcel of a pluralistic and diverse media landscape particularly important in national contexts characterised by high control over information flows and the absence of an independent media

Satellite Interference

There are a variety of ways to interfere with a satellite's communications. One is to broadcast a stronger signal, either from the ground or from another satellite, preventing people from receiving the communication. Another is to blast a signal at the satellite itself so that it cannot receive what the ground is trying to send it.

In order to avoid the interference associated with satellite jamming, media outlets have turned to internet broadcasting platforms. However, even these come under threat as they are also being targeted by governments through filtering or blocking.  According to the BBC, the Iranian government is among the world’s most pervasive filterers of internet content, and presents a special challenge to global media.   

Bahrain: The Case of LuaLua TV

Founded by 15 members of the Bahraini opposition, LuaLua TV has repeatedly been denied permission to broadcast out of Bahrain, and so relocated to London, from where the channel continues to operate. The channel derives its name from the Pearl roundabout in Manama, Bahrain, the focal point of the recent wave of democracy protests that swept through the country. The station broadcasts in Arabic and is aimed at members of the opposition inside Bahrain, beaming via the satellite service Hotbird. The satellite jamming of LuaLua TV is taking place despite the channel changing its frequency regularly.

To circumvent the channel’s satellite jamming, LuaLua TV started a partnership with the online streaming service, Livestation, on 12 August 2011. However, after only two weeks, LuaLua TV received reports that the website that carries their live stream was also being blocked within Bahrain.

Upon learning from Eutelsat that the jamming hailed from Bahrain, Executive Director of Lualua TV said “A lot of hard work has gone into this channel and we are extremely disappointed that we have had trouble broadcasting our message. It comes as no surprise that the source of the jamming is Bahrain, it is as we had expected. We have followed all regulations in the creation of this station and we will not allow this setback to stop us from broadcasting permanently. We are hoping that the interference has now ended, but if it returns we will just have to find other ways to reinforce our message.”

Although it is not known who in particular in Bahrain is responsible for both the channel’s satellite jamming and internet blocking, there are strong indications that it can be traced to within the country. The Bahraini government has a long legacy of limiting media freedom and censoring critical voices in the country as well as harassment of and violence against human rights defenders and journalists. During the wave of populist protests that swept through the MiddleEast and North Africa, dissidence in Bahrain was met with a violent government crackdown on the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. Since February 2011, over 100 protestors have been arrested and jailed and at least 30 were killed.

But repression of voices critical of the government is unfortunately not confined to Bahrain.

Iran: The case of BBC Persian Service

As a result of repeated satellite interference, the BBC has increased the number of satellites that carry its BBC Persian television service for Farsi-speakers in Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. The recent increase comes as a result of the persistent interference of the Hotbird 6 satellite, which carries the BBC's international television and radio services in various languages, as well as services from other broadcasters.

BBC Persian television first suffered interference in mid-2009 and since then has been subject to interference on many occasions, particularly in September 2011. The satellite operator has traced the interference and has confirmed it is coming from within Iran.

From 2009 to 2011, the BBC worked with Psiphon on a series of trials designed to test how readily content could overcome Chinese and Iranian blocking efforts, using a range of delivery methods, including social networking sites like Twitter, traditional radio broadcasts, and special email lists.

Jamming: A Violation of Freedom of Expression

ARTICLE 19 finds very worrying the increase in deliberate jamming of specific broadcasters by governments, especially in countries with severe censorship and frequent violations of freedom of expression, which hinders freedom of information.

ARTICLE 19 observes that despite clear international rules, action against jamming of foreign-based broadcasters remains difficult.  The question was extremely constrained by international geopolitics during the Cold War years, when the countries of the Eastern block and developing countries emphasised strong preferences in international law to protect the sanctity of borders and state sovereignty.

States resorting to jamming foreign broadcasters justify it on the ground of national sovereignty and maintain that their aim is to prevent unwanted foreign broadcasts “propaganda” from reaching their citizens.

However, ARTICLE 19 believes that the jamming of foreign-based broadcasters in circumstances such as those of Lualua TV and the Persian Service of BBC violate international human rights law as it relates to freedom of expression.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

Article 19 of the ICCPR, ratified by Bahrain in September 2006 and Iran in June 1975, stipulates that everyone has a right “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. In particular, the ICCPR states that people can exercise their right to freedom of expression “regardless of frontiers”, in other words, the exercise is not limited by national borders.

International human rights standards allow, under Article 19(3), for narrowly defined restrictions to freedom of expression: first, the interference must be in accordance with a law; second, the legally sanctioned restriction must protect or promote an aim deemed legitimate in international law; and third, the restriction must be necessary for the protection or promotion of the legitimate aim. This is known as the three-part test.

For jamming to be legitimate it should therefore be:

  1. Prescribed by law. The law should specify who, how and in what cases can jam frequencies. The law should include safeguards against abuse of power. For example, independent courts or bodies should authorise the jamming and supervise how it is performed
  2. Pursue legitimate purposes; for example, national security, protection of public order, etc
  3. Be strictly necessary to achieve these purposes. The authorities should provide relevant and sufficient reasons demonstrating that without jamming it will not be possible to protect national security or public order. The context is important to justify jamming. Therefore it is difficult to justify jamming per se.

None of these conditions are met in the cases of Lualua TV or BBC Persian.

It can be assumed that apart from state-sovereignty claims, the governments of Bahrain and Iran – if engaged in jamming - would claim that foreign-based broadcasters can be prevented from transmitting their signals into their national territories since their laws require broadcasters to obtain a licence from a public body. If broadcasters operate without such license, they are violating the law. Also, the governments might claim that they are protecting public order, or prohibiting propaganda broadcasts. However, ARTICLE 19 suggests that these claims would not satisfy the third part of the test above - requirement of necessity of the interference - which imposes several quality requirements on any practice which abridges the right to freedom of expression. 

In order to justify a measure which interferes with free speech, a government must be acting in response to a pressing social need.  In the case of Bahrain and Iran, where freedom of expression is severely repressed and the independent media is non-existent, foreign broadcasters aim to provide independent information to the people of those countries. With deliberate signal intrusion, the governments are preventing their populations from learning about the situation in their own countries and about many human rights violations. At the same time, these governments heavily censor and repress domestic media or do not provide licenses to independent broadcasters. Democratic societies depend on the free flow of information and ideas and in repressive regimes, such as Bahrain and Iran, jamming undermines freedom of expression in a way that cannot be justified.

Other standards

There are other standards and sources asserting the illegitimate nature of jamming of foreign-based broadcasting.

ARTICLE 19  notes that already in 1950, the General Assembly Resolution 424 V) Freedom of Information: Interference  with Radio Signals, stated that deliberate interference by duly authorised radio operating agencies of radio signals originating beyond their territory constitutes a violation of the accepted principle of freedom of information. The Resolution also condemned the measure, such as radio jamming, as “a denial of the right of all persons to be fully informed concerning news, opinions and ideas regardless of frontiers”.

The 1972 UNESCO Declaration of Guiding Principles on the Use of Satellite Broadcasting for the Free Flow of Information, the Spread of Education and Greater Cultural Exchange proclaims the necessity for states to "reach or promote prior agreements concerning direct satellite broadcasting to the population of countries other than the country of origin of the transmission,” a position later reiterated in a  General Assembly resolution.

The 1986 Concluding Document of the Vienna Meeting of Representatives of Participating States of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe required the participating states to “ensure that radio services operating in accordance with the ITU Radio Regulations can be directly and normally received in their states”. While the provision does not expressly prohibit jamming, its intent was to send a signal against jamming and it has been its effect.

Further, ARTICLE 19 asserts that foreign-broadcast jamming of the type experienced by Lualua TV is in breach of many of the International Telecommunications Convention (ITU) foundational documents and agreements, including its Constitution, Convention and Radio Regulations.  For instance, jamming of foreign-based broadcasting amounts to a violation of Article 35 of the International Telecommunications Convention (ITC), which prevents radio jamming even when a nation claims it has a right to protect its sovereignty. 

ARTICLE 19 believes that the deliberate jamming of LuaLua TV in Bahrain clearly interferes with both the rights of individuals and broadcasters to receive and impart information, as provided by Article 19 of the ICCPR and international standards and best practise around the world.