Thursday, 7 February 2019

From my archive: Radio in the 2011 Libyan civil war

I wrote the article below in early September 2011, while the Libyan civil war was still in progress and Muammar Gaddafi was still alive. An edited version was published in the 2012 edition of the World Radio TV Handbook under the title Radio and the Arab Spring.

Here is some background that may be useful for the modern reader.

The Tunisian and Egyptian presidents were overthrown in January and February 2011 respectively in events that were part of what would become known as the Arab Spring.

In Libya, after weeks of public unrest, the revolt against Gaddafi began in earnest on 17 February 2011. 

Within days, insurgent forces had captured a number of the Gaddafi regime’s radio stations and were using them to air broadcasts under the name Voice of Free Libya.

NATO forces joined the conflict in March. Tripoli fell to the rebels in August. Gaddafi was eventually captured and killed in October.

Voice of Free Libya aired over three powerful AM transmitters

Libyan rebel radio

"From the slopes of the great Green Mountain, this is the Voice of Free Libya radio!" 

These words, broadcast over a powerful (500-kilowatt) mediumwave (AM) transmitter captured by rebels in early 2011, seemed to echo dramatic radio announcements from Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 and various places since. 

In fact, radio had a very limited role in most of the Arab uprisings. Libya was a special case. 

Within days of the start of the uprising in mid-February, rebels in eastern Libya had seized the government's powerful AM transmitters in El Beida (which aired the announcement above) and Benghazi (on 1125 and 675 kHz respectively), and were using them effectively. The only hiccup came when the radio studios in Benghazi were destroyed in the initial confusion of the uprising and an improvised one had to be set up before broadcasts could start. 

In the west of the country, rebels quickly took over the local radio station in Libya's third city, Misrata, but initially only aired on FM. Use of the 500-kW AM transmitter in Misrata began in March, providing a signal on 1449 kHz that could be heard after dark across much of Europe. Later, the Benghazi and Misrata Voice of Free Libya stations became audible worldwide via live internet streams. 

FM on, but shortwave off

Rebel-controlled FM stations sprang into life in at least six other Libyan towns. 

Benghazi, the de facto rebel capital, became a media hub for the opposition. Outlets launched there included the official Voice of Free Benghazi, youth station Shabab Libya FM, English-language Tribute FM, and Libya FM (relaying a satellite channel set up by musician Hamid El Shaeri). 

Also on Benghazi's FM dial were relays of the audio streams of various TV channels including Qatar-based opposition Libya al-Ahrar and pan-Arab Al-Jazeera, along with a relay of BBC Arabic radio. 

Libya FM was also relayed by rebel-controlled FM stations in other parts of the country.

An announcer at the rebels' Radio Free Nalut (98.2 FM) in western Libya in July 2011
Photo credit: Mohamed Madi

Libya was once both a source and a target for a number of clandestine shortwave broadcasts. An exiled opposition radio, Sawt al-Amal (Voice of Hope), operated until 2006. But with the rebels of 2011 running so many stations inside the country, there was no need for such broadcasts from transmitters abroad. 

After the rebels captured Tripoli, they launched their own Radio Libya on former Gaddafi-controlled transmitters in the city (1053 AM and 96.6 FM). 

Low priority

Earlier, the Gaddafi government's use of radio had been hampered by the rebels' capture of much of its AM and FM transmitter network. It tried to mitigate this by using a single shortwave transmitter to beam its domestic service to rebel-controlled territory, though it's unclear whether this had any audience. 

Radio enthusiasts outside Libya were disappointed with the lacklustre and irregular output of the government's Voice of Africa shortwave station, mostly made up of recorded material unrelated to the news of the day. 

The government invested much more effort in its TV broadcasts and was surprisingly successful in maintaining both programming and transmissions, despite NATO air strikes and pressure on satellite operators to drop them. 

Two pieces of evidence showed the lack of importance the Gaddafi authorities placed on radio: they used some of their remaining radio transmitters simply to relay the audio channel of state TV, and they were happy to drop satellite distribution of most of their radio networks. 

Little jamming of radio, much more of TV

Unlike in Iraq in 1991 and 2003, and Afghanistan in 2001, no special Western radio broadcasts were aimed at Libyan civilians. NATO used shortwave radio for psychological warfare transmissions targeting the military, but although these caught the interest of curious enthusiasts outside Libya, I saw no evidence that they had an impact on their intended audience inside the country. However, they did attract jamming. No Libyan jamming of other foreign radio broadcasts was confirmed during the crisis.

In contrast, Gaddafi's media campaigned vigorously against Al-Jazeera TV, denouncing it as the "Khanzeera" (Arabic for "pig") channel. Jamming of Al-Jazeera's satellite signals in January and February was blamed on Tripoli. Al-Jazeera said the interference had been traced to a building used by the Libyan intelligence service. 

In return, Libyan state TV's satellite signals were intermittently jammed - perpetrator unknown.

Egypt and Tunisia

In neighbouring Egypt, the authorities also sought to halt the unrest by disrupting Al-Jazeera's operations. They also cut off the country from the global internet for more than five days in late January. However, they do not seem to have regarded foreign terrestrial radio broadcasts as a threat as no jamming of them was reported. 

As with its Libyan counterpart, the government's Radio Cairo external service, a disappointment to listeners for years because of the poor technical quality of its shortwave signals, was of little worth for those seeking news from Egypt. 

One of Libya's other Arab neighbours, Tunisia, saw some clandestine radio activity during its revolution, though this was online, rather than over-the-air, broadcasting by stations such as Radio Kalima (Dignity). The key news source in the early days of the Tunisian unrest was Al-Jazeera TV, in particular its dedicated North African evening news programme "Maghreb Harvest".

Conclusions: Radio and the Arab Spring

  • TV and the internet have almost entirely replaced radio as Arab audiences' preferred source of information.
  • But particular circumstances in Libya allowed the rebels there to make good use of radio.
  • Elsewhere, opposition groups used social media and satellite TV to get their message across.
  • Arab governments also fought their media battles online and on TV. They paid little attention to radio, either offensively (their own broadcasts) or defensively (jamming).
  • There was little evidence that shortwave radio had any impact.
  • In a year when a number of major international radio broadcasters announced substantial cuts, none significantly expanded their shortwave operations in response to the crises.
The main conclusion from the historic events in these countries in 2011 is that, 15 years after the launch of Al-Jazeeraradio has been replaced by satellite TV and the internet as the preferred source of information for most Arab audiences.

© 2011 and 2019. Material may be reproduced if attributed to Chris Greenway and the World Radio TV Handbook.

Saturday, 2 February 2019

From my archive: Clandestine radio activity in East Africa hots up in 1988

I wrote the article below in 1988. It was published in the September 1988 edition of  Communication, the journal of the British DX Club (an association of radio enthusiasts and hobbyists).

If you find this article interesting, have a look at two others I wrote at the time: 
Clandestine radio in East Africa in 1987 
Sudanese clandestine radio activity in 1987 

The 1988 article:

There have been several changes to the clandestine radio scene in east Africa since my last articles on this subject appeared in Communication (May and September 1987). The two major developments causing these changes have been an upsurge in the activities of groups opposed to the present government in Ethiopia and an improvement in that country’s relations with Somalia.

Developments in Ethiopia

The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) is the largest and most active of several organisations which have been fighting against the Ethiopian government since the early 1960s. These groups wish to restore to Eritrea (a region of northern Ethiopia) the autonomy it enjoyed in the period after the Second World War. 

In March 1988 the EPLF launched a massive military offensive in Eritrea. This offensive attracted considerable attention abroad and the EPLF’s radio station, Voice of the Broad Masses of Eritrea (VOBME), played a major role in publicising the Front’s victories which, it was claimed, included the death, injury and capture of tens of thousands of government troops.

In the neighbouring region of Tigray, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) used the preoccupation of government forces with the EPLF to intensify their own campaign of guerrilla warfare. The TPLF and EPLF also took the opportunity of the improvement in their fortunes to re-establish cooperation between themselves, which had broken down a few years ago over ideological differences. 

Following this renewal of relations, both VOBME and the TPLF’s own station, Voice of the Tigray Revolution (VOTR), began to give publicity not only to their own activities but also to each others’ and to those of other rebel groups opposed to the Ethiopian government. VOTR itself has been heard again after a period of inactivity. 

Some years ago both stations shared the same transmitters. Now the VOTR seems to have acquired its own facilities. Both VOBME and VOTR claim to broadcast from “liberated areas” of Eritrea and Tigray respectively and I think those claims are genuine, given that it is known that much of the two regions is in rebel hands.

Somalia and Ethiopia end their radio war...

Meanwhile, other opposition stations continue to broadcast their message from outside Ethiopia or, to be more precise, Sudan. 

In the past Somalia has also acted as a base for anti-Ethiopian radio activities. However, in April 1988 Somalia and Ethiopia reached an agreement providing for the normalisation of diplomatic relations, the exchange of POWs captured in the 1977-78 war between the two countries and the cessation of hostile propaganda activities. 

Within a few days of this agreement two stations had closed down: Radio Halgan (which broadcast from Addis Ababa in support of two Ethiopian-backed Somali opposition groups) and Voice of the Western Somali and Somali Abo Liberation Fronts (which broadcasts from Mogadishu to the ethnic Somali population in the Ogaden desert region of eastern Ethiopia, or “western Somalia” as they referred to it).

... but Sudan and Ethiopia step up their hostilities

Although the Somali-Ethiopian “radio war” has come to an end, that between Ethiopia and Sudan continues, despite peace talks between the two governments. In fact, the propaganda battle has intensified and there are now three clandestine or semi-clandestine stations operating from Sudan, almost certainly from the same site. 

Two are aimed at Ethiopia: Radio Voice of Ethiopian Unity (which supports a US-backed opposition group) and Voice of Oromo Liberation (the Oromos are a large ethnic group who live mainly in southern Ethiopia). 

The third station is National Unity Radio (NUR), which started life in 1986 as a “black” operation designed to counteract the propaganda of the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). However, since October 1987 NUR has adopted a more “official” line. Suspicions that all these three stations are using the same transmitting facilities in Sudan were heightened when they all went off the air at the same time when Sudan was hit by the recent disastrous floods.

Meanwhile, Radio SPLA continues to broadcast from Addis Ababa, and in recent programmes has been criticising the Sudanese government’s handling of the disaster.

Schedules (all subject to frequent variation):

Voice of the Broad Masses of Eritrea: 0400-0700, 0900-1100 and 1400-1700 GMT on 14330 and 7485 kHz (both highly variable).

Voice of the Tigray Revolution: 0400-0500, 1500-1630 and 1900-2030 GMT on 9343, 9311 and 7830 kHz.

Radio Voice of Ethiopian Unity: 1800-2000 GMT. Try 11180, 9665, 9660, 9655, 9430, 9425, 7200 and 7100 kHz (no more than two frequencies are used at any one time).

Voice of Oromo Liberation: 1530-1600 GMT on 9550 kHz.

National Unity Radio: 1400-1500 GMT on 11710, 9550, 9435 or 7100 kHz (no more than two frequencies are used at any one time).

Radio SPLA: 1100-1200 and 1300-1400 GMT (including English) on 11710 and 9550 kHz.

Reception of all these stations in theoretically possible in the UK. 

Happy hunting! Chris

© 1988 and 2019. Material may be reproduced if attributed to Chris Greenway and the British DX Club.

From my archive: Sudanese clandestine radio activity in 1987

I wrote the article below in 1987 when I was living in Kenya. It was published in the September 1987 edition of Communication, the journal of the British DX Club (an association of radio enthusiasts and hobbyists).

Some brief explanations may be useful for the modern reader:

The SPLA was the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army.

The clandestine radio stations mentioned in the article were all broadcasting in the shortwave bands, then widely used by listeners across Africa. As the article was written for radio enthusiasts mainly living in the UK it included details of the frequencies  given in kilohertz (kHz)  that the stations might be heard on.

If you find this article interesting, have a look at two others I wrote at the time:
Clandestine radio in East Africa in 1987 

The 1987 article:

In the May [1987] edition of Communication I explained how the poor relations between Sudan and Ethiopia had led to a “radio war” between the two countries, albeit a one-sided one, with the Ethiopians putting facilities at the disposal of the highly-professional Radio SPLA (the station of the rebels fighting in southern Sudan) but with the Sudanese authorities seemingly unwilling or unable to mount an effective reply. 

Although the official Sudanese radio in Omdurman remains a poor match for Radio SPLA, both in propaganda and technical terms (its main MF transmitter on 1296 kHz is frequently off the air for several days at a time), it appears that a clandestine radio organisation (possibly linked to the Sudanese armed forces) is now attempting to hit back at Ethiopia.

The story began last September [1986] when Radio SPLA started to suffer deliberate interference from a rival station which broadcast anti-SPLA programmes at the same time and on the same frequencies. The usual result was that listeners could hear neither station clearly. 

The new station seemed to be experimental as the exact times for each broadcast changed daily; some days there were no broadcasts, and indeed the programmes were not heard for weeks on end. It seems that, perhaps to support its credentials as an unofficial operation, the anti-SPLA broadcasts deliberately operate for just a month or so at a time, followed by a period of dormancy. This on-off approach has been used by other clandestine broadcasters, such as some of those targeted by the Soviet Union against China.

Fresh tactics

In its latest period of operations the station has changed its original tactics. Instead of jamming Radio SPLA it broadcasts immediately before and after the rebel station, but still on the same frequency. To add to listeners’ confusion, it uses the same signature tune as Radio SPLA. 

Although these tactics display a certain degree of cunning, the anti-SPLA station’s propaganda message is equally as crude as its opponents. Even to the casual listener it is clear that the station is putting forward an official viewpoint. Although it does not use a station name as such, it announces that its programmes are aimed specifically at the Sudanese armed forces. 

Its propaganda is also weakened by only being in Arabic, whilst many of the southern Sudanese who support the SPLA speak English or a tribal language.

Previous Sudanese clandestine radio activity

Up to a few years ago, in fact until the overthrow of President Nimeiry in 1985, Sudan was a centre for clandestine broadcasting in the region. The Nimeiry government was supported by the USA and so not surprisingly two stations active at that time and based in Sudan were aimed at anti-US regimes - Colonel Gaddafi's Libya and the Soviet-allied South Yemen. 

Voice of the Libyan People operated on 15040 and 11640 kHz. In March 1984 Gaddafi even sent the Libyan air force to try and bomb it off the air (the attempt failed). 

Voice of the Free Sons of the Yemeni South (VFSYS) used the unusual frequency of 11180 kHz. Although VFSYS was not heard after Numayri’s downfall, 11180 kHz continued to be used sporadically for a while for relays of the official Sudanese radio.

New station targeting Ethiopia

And now 11180 kHz has reappeared with another operation. In July a new anti-Ethiopian station took to the air. Radio Voice of Ethiopian Unity (RVEU) uncompromisingly attacks the Marxist government in Addis Ababa. This is not surprising as it is run by the main right-wing group of Ethiopian dissidents, the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Alliance, which is based in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, and is said to be subsidised by the US Government to the tune of half-a-million dollars a year. 

At first, RVEU used frequencies in the crowded 31 and 41 metre shortwave bands. Now it has shifted to the out-of-band channels of 9430 and our old friend 11180 kHz. Reception here in Nairobi is excellent; so far the Ethiopians do not appear to be jamming RVEU, as they do another opposition station, Voice of the Broad Masses of Eritrea.

The Sudanese government denies supporting RVEU and the station itself claims to be broadcasting from somewhere near the Sudanese-Ethiopian border. My own belief is that RVEU is using the same facilities as the anti-SPLA station, probably located near Khartoum, or its sister city, Omdurman.

© 1987 and 2019. Material may be reproduced if attributed to Chris Greenway and the British DX Club.

From my archive: Clandestine radio in East Africa in 1987

I wrote the article below in 1987 when I was living in Kenya. It was published in the May 1987 edition of Communication, the journal of the British DX Club (an association of radio enthusiasts and hobbyists).

Some brief explanations may be useful for the modern reader:

In 1987, Eritrea was still part of the communist-run state of Ethiopia. The communist government would be defeated by insurgents in 1991, bringing de facto independence to Eritrea, which was formalised in 1993. The Voice of the Broad Masses of Eritrea station described below had been launched in 1979. After independence it became the state broadcaster of the new country of Eritrea.

Also mentioned is the territory of South West Africa. In 1987 this was under the control of South Africa (then still in the apartheid era). South West Africa would become independent as the new country of Namibia in 1990.

The clandestine radio stations mentioned in the article were all broadcasting in the shortwave bands, then widely used by listeners across Africa. As the article was written for radio enthusiasts mainly living in the UK it included details of the frequencies  given in kilohertz (kHz)  that the stations might be heard on.

If you find this article interesting, have a look at two others I wrote at the time: 
Sudanese clandestine radio activity in 1987 
Clandestine radio activity in East Africa hots up in 1988

The 1987 article:

There are five countries bordering Kenya and in four of them guerrillas are in rebellion against the central government, so it is not surprising that this is a fertile region for clandestine broadcasting. Most of this is connected with Ethiopia, either as the originator or target of various stations. 

Ethiopia: Voice of the Broad Masses of Eritrea

Ethiopia contains a number of ethnic groups and some of them are unhappy with the domination of the country by the ruling Amharas. In Eritrea, in the north of the country, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) and similar groups have been fighting for regional autonomy since the 1960s. They have managed to wrest permanent control of substantial territory from the Addis Ababa government. It is from this “liberated territory” that the EPLF operates its radio station, Voice of the Broad Masses of Eritrea

By its choice of frequencies, all outside normal broadcast bands, it seems likely that VOBME is using modified amateur radio transmitters. 

Programmes in five languages of the area are broadcast in three transmission blocks each day: at 0400-0600, 1430-1630 and 1800-2000 GMT. Several frequencies (all highly variable) are used for each broadcast: 14320 kHz (or thereabouts) seems to have been the most consistent over the years. 

I believe that the station has been heard in the UK, although its low power, variable frequencies and Ethiopian jamming make it a formidable challenge. 

Sudan: Radio SPLA

The Eritreans receive support from a number of countries, including, or so it is widely suspected, neighbouring Sudan. Naturally this displeases the Ethiopian government and so it is partly as a counterweight that Ethiopia gives military and other support to the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) which is fighting an extensive guerrilla war in southern Sudan. 

As part of this aid, the government-controlled Voice of Revolutionary Ethiopia puts its facilities at the disposal of Radio SPLA for two hour-long broadcasts a day in several tribal languages of southern Sudan, as well as English and Arabic. 

Radio SPLA is the most professional clandestine station I have heard. Its programmes are skillfully produced and presented, and in propaganda terms it leaves the dull output of the official radio in Omdurman far behind. The English broadcast is at 1300-1330 on 9550 and 11710 kHz, which should make it possible for it to be heard in the UK during the winter. 

Broadcasts to/from Somalia: Radio HalganVoice of the Western Somali and Somali Abo Liberation Fronts

In addition to its quarrel with Sudan, Ethiopia has a long-standing border dispute with Somalia in which radio plays a role.

Voice of Revolutionary Ethiopia allows its facilities to be used by two dissident Somali groups - the Somali National Movement and the Democratic Front for the Salvation of Somalia - which operate Radio Halgan (“Struggle Radio”) and use it to broadcast military claims and other propaganda daily in Somali at 1700-1800 GMT on 9590 and 7265 kHz. 

Somalia’s answer to Radio Halgan is Voice of the Western Somali and Somali Abo Liberation Fronts which broadcasts to the Somali community living in eastern Ethiopia (or “western Somalia” as Mogadishu describes the area). This uses Radio Mogadishu’s external service transmitter on 6095 kHz for its daily 0930-1000 GMT broadcast. The chances of hearing this one outside the east African region must be thin as even here in Nairobi the signal is very weak. 

Beaming to southern Africa: Radio Freedom & Voice of Namibia

Neither Radio SPLA nor Radio Halgan admit that they are coming from Ethiopia. However, two stations broadcasting to southern Africa are quite happy to say that they are using the Ethiopian state radio's facilities. 

They are Voice of Namibia, which is operated by the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO), and the African National Congress’s Radio Freedom, both of which broadcast mainly in English daily at 1900-1930 and 1930-2000 GMT respectively on 9595 kHz. 

Both of them, but particularly Radio Freedom, are well run and make use of revolutionary music to enliven the propaganda message. Furthermore, the commentaries are not just long tirades but include carefully chosen and edited recordings of remarks by various leaders of the ANC and SWAPO. 

Radio Freedom and Voice of Namibia also use radio facilities in several other African countries. The broadcasts from Ethiopia have been heard in the UK.

© 1987 and 2019. Material may be reproduced if attributed to Chris Greenway and the British DX Club.