28th Feb 2013

We’re Jamming: The Analogue Firewall


Prefiguring state censorship of the internet and satelitte television is a far longer history of state interference in international radio transmissions – also known as jamming. A history, according to a recent report on BBC World Service jamming in China, that is still very much alive.

Jamming was particularly rife during the Cold War era, with the former Soviet Union the main offender. Despite the huge expense – estimates suggest that blocking radio signals costs between three and seven times more than broadcasting from the same frequencies – it was deemed essential for the Communist Bloc to prevent Western progaganda, delivered both in English and Central/Eastern European languages, from poisoning the hearts and minds of comrades everywhere.

The two main players in world radio at this time were the BBC World Service and the Voice of America. The Soviet Union were actually less hostile to the former, but the latter was constantly jammed and deliberately countered by internal state radio propaganda.

Studies into the effectiveness of jamming are inconclusive, but most researchers agree that jamming was less successful when faced with saturation broadcasting – a strategy used by VoA whereby the broadcaster simultaneously transmitted on a range of different frequencies across the available spectrum. The testimonies of Soviet civilians following the end of the Cold War also reveal how many of them succeeded in receiving external broadcasts simply by relocating out of urban areas and into the countryside. Such evidence points to the limited and often localised character of analgoue blocking.

I am one of a no doubt small minority of people in Western countries who actually owns a radio capable of receiving shortwave signals. And since the lifting of the Iron Curtain and the rapid development of digital communications technologies, there appears to be little need for these antiquated devices with their manual tuners and complicated bandings. Yet the need continues, as the present case proves.

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