Saturday, 29 February 2020

From my archive: Radio and the assassination of President Sadat

I wrote the article below for the October 1981 edition of Communication, the journal of the British DX Club (an association of radio enthusiasts and hobbyists). 

The key point of the article is that, for several hours after Sadat's assassination, Egyptian state radio was incapable of reacting to (or even reporting) it, while its Libyan counterpart did its best to exploit that failure. At the time, Libya was both a source and a target of psychological radio activity.

In 1981, fifteen years before the internet and pan-Arab satellite TV channels began to become the preferred source of news for Arab audiences, they often heard about developments in their own countries from foreign radio broadcasts. This included stations in other Arab countries as well as those outside the region such as the BBC Arabic service and its Paris-based competitor Radio Monte Carlo.

The article mentions Libyan radio's external Arabic-language service, Voice of the Arab Homeland. In March 1983 this was renamed Voice of the Greater Arab Homeland. In 1998 it became Voice of Africa, reflecting Colonel Gaddafi's changed foreign policy priorities.

Also mentioned is Voice of the Egyptian People. This anti-Sadat clandestine radio station broadcast from Libya.

The 1981 article:

When President Reagan was shot earlier this year [30 March 1981] television pictures of the assassination attempt were being shown around the world within minutes of the event. And when a gunman seriously wounded the Pope in St Peter's Square [on 13 May 1981] listeners to Vatican Radio were soon hearing up-to-the-minute reports on the Pope's condition broadcast for multilingual audiences worldwide on a number of shortwave channels.

It was a different matter when President Anwar Sadat was shot by a group of Egyptian soldiers at a military parade in Cairo on 6 October. Although this dramatic event was potentially an occasion when the keen shortwave listener could receive first-hand reports direct from the scene, the behaviour of the Egyptian broadcasting system precluded this.

Outside broadcast cut short

It was at 1104 GMT, 1304 Egyptian time [1], that six soldiers leapt from an army lorry which had stopped in front of the president's reviewing stand, threw grenades at Sadat and other VIPs and then opened fire, fatally wounding the Egyptian leader and seven others and causing at least 20 other casualties. [Note in 2020: There are now various figures available for the number of those killed and injured.]

Egyptian state radio and television, which had been carrying a live outside broadcast of the ceremony, abruptly cut this short without explanation, leaving listeners and viewers bewildered. For Egyptians, foreign broadcasters became the only sources of information about events in their own capital for almost seven hours. Their confusion must have been compounded as these foreign radio stations, particularly those broadcasting specifically to Egypt, gave conflicting accounts of events in Cairo.

Meanwhile, within an hour of the shooting, lunch time listeners in Britain were receiving full coverage of what was known at the time, including several eyewitness reports, on Radio 4's The World at One (at 1200 GMT). Sadat died in hospital at around 1215 GMT and his death was unofficially communicated shortly afterwards to the world's press. [2]

Libyan radio changes its schedule

The state radio in neighbouring Libya had pre-empted this information and was announcing Sadat's death within an hour of the shooting in Cairo, giving rise to suspicions that sources in Libya may have had advanced warning of the attack. 

At 1253 GMT, Tripoli radio announced that General Shazly, a former Egyptian army chief of staff now living in Libya as leader of the Egyptian National Front (an umbrella opposition group), would "be broadcasting an important announcement to the people shortly". At 1300 GMT it was broadcasting calls to the Egyptian people, urging them to take over the radio station in Cairo and, in typical polemical style, announcing that "Sadat's face has disappeared, the ugly face has disappeared with all its shame, capitulation and defeat. Sadat has died and some of his ministers have died too. Shame and treason ­died with him."

In response to events, Libyan radio discontinued its relay of its domestic service on short wave at 1415 GMT, replacing it with its Voice of the Arab Homeland external service for listeners in the Arab world. (This service does not normally start until 1800.) Later this service  using 17930, 15415, 15270 and 6185 kHz  carried a speech on the assassination by Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi. 

Meanwhile, the official Libyan news agency JANA was carrying a report claiming that a local broadcast from an Egyptian radio station had been heard carrying a "revolutionary statement in the name of the free officers".

Delayed, and limited, reporting from Cairo

Like the calm at the eye of a storm, the Radio Cairo external service, in its 1230 GMT scheduled news bulletin in English to Asia, gave no indication that the assassination had taken place. Only at 1625 GMT did it give any indication of the trouble by starting to broadcast chants from the Koran. These chants, uninterrupted by announcements, were heard on frequencies normally scheduled to relay both Egyptian radio's General Service and those of its Voice of the Arabs outlet

Finally, at 1752 GMT, the Koranic recitation was interrupted for an announcement by a solemn Vice-President Mubarak. This announcement, and the English news bulletin for Europe at 2130, gave very few details of the manner of Sadat's death but merely said he had been attacked at the parade to commemorate "the 6th October victory", the day when "dignity was restored to the entire Arab nation". ­

Clandestine radio

The anti-Sadat Voice of the Egyptian People clandestine radio station failed to appear on the evening of 6 October for its scheduled 1900-2000 GMT broadcast on 9670 kHz. [I now speculate that this was because the programme was pre-recorded, and the edition scheduled to air that evening had been prepared before the assassination. Rather than air a broadcast that made no mention of the news from Cairo, its Libyan operators decided that the station should remain silent that day.]

Notes

[1] Although the UK was still on summer time on 6 October 1981, Egypt had reverted to winter time on 1 October and so was GMT+2.

[2] The time of death as 1215 GMT was given in the following day's Times (of London). The archives of the New York Times and United Press International give the time of death as 1240 GMT, 1440 Egyptian time.

© 1981 and 2020. Material may be reproduced if attributed to Chris Greenway and the British DX Club.