Pirate Radio at the Beijing Olympics

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Radio has reach, lots of reach. It can extend pretty much anywhere there is atmosphere. Reporters Without Borders made use of this aspect of broadcast Friday morning when they kicked off a 20-minute Mandarin-language protest via a pirate radio broadcast across Beijing. Transmitted over the FM band, the transmission started around 8:15am Beijing time Friday. The show called for the release of more than 100 Chinese citizens jailed for writing news and opinion, mostly over the Internet. (An English language version of the audio can be accessed here.)

Via The Economic Times:

The broadcast condemned the Communist Party’s grip on news media. “China is a strictly censored country and our goal in making this broadcast is to criticise the Chinese government,” a Chinese-language announcer told listeners, many no doubt puzzled to hear broadcast of a popular spoken-word novel interrupted.

The last part, the one about interrupting a spoken word broadcast, seems to be a bit under dispute. Andrew Batson, who writes The China Journal Blog for The Wall Street Journal seems to be of a different opinion.

The Wall Street Journal called stations in the city including Beijing Radio, Central Radio and China Radio International to see if they noticed this hijacking of the airwaves. It turns out that none of these stations broadcast on the 104.4 FM frequency. So would any listeners have been tuned into that frequency this morning?

I’m sure the issue of how far the program’s reach actually was is one that will be over- or understated no matter who you talk to. I doubt we will see the Portable People Meter used in this case. Of course the Beijing radio stations may not be the most reliable source of info considering the climate there for media pros. Anyway, let’s return to the statement from The Economic Times that I interrupted with that aside:

“We want to tell the Chinese government that on the day that the Olympics open, the people will still be able to hear voices the government doesn’t want heard.” Vincent Brossel, a Paris-based spokesman for the group, said it timed the on-air challenge to coincide with the final build-up to the Beijing Games opening on Friday evening.

“It’s 12 hours before the opening of the Olympics — a time when we want these voices heard,” he said by telephone. The group said the broadcast was the first out of state control in China since 1949, when the Communist Party established power.

While the Internet is an incredible tool for mobilizing people and sharing information that some want kept under wraps, with broadcast there is no real way to track down the listeners. In an arena where freedom of speech is often a jail-able offense, listening is far, far safer than surfing.

All in all, it is reminiscent of last March when a member of this same group interrupted the ceremonial lighting of the Games torch in Greece. Mr. Brossel said they had used foreign volunteers to bring in FM transmitter piecemeal over several weeks so as to elude customs. “FM broadcasting technology is easy,” he said. “If we cannot protest physically in Beijing we will still be there.”

Photo courtesy of http2007, used under its Creative Commons license

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