Reacting to the systematic interference of the Zimbabwean independent radio station Voice of the People (VOP) since 18 September, Reporters Without Borders voiced outrage today at a campaign to jam dissident radio broadcasts which the Zimbabwean authorities are clearly orchestrating with Chinese help.
The press freedom organisation pointed out that this "state sabotage" of VOP comes three years after it was the target of a still unsolved bombing in the heart of Harare.
"Robert Mugabe’s government has once again shown that its policy is to systematically gag all independent news media," Reporters Without Borders said. "The use of Chinese technology in a totally hypocritical and non-transparent fashion reveals the government’s iron resolve to abolish freedom of opinion in Zimbabwe."
The press freedom organisation added: "We reiterate out belief that Zimbabwe’s progressive submission to the dictatorship of a single view is being made possible by the incomprehensible failure of the great African democracies to take a stand against this behaviour by the Harare government."
VOP beams a radio programme to Zimbabwe every evening from 7 to 8 p.m. (18:00 to 19:00 GMT) on the 7.120KHz shortwave frequency using a relay station belonging to the Dutch public radio station Radio Netherlands on the island of Madagascar, in the Indian Ocean.
"Our signal is no longer as clear as it is supposed to be," a VOP employee told Reporters Without Borders. "There is a funny noise and this is affecting our evening programme. We can say we are being jammed." The VOP staff suspect that the government is using sophisticated jamming equipment imported from China.
This hour of VOP programming has offered the sole opportunity for Zimbabwean listeners to tune into to an alternative to the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) ever since deliberate jamming of the London-based exile station SW Radio Africa began in February. SW Radio Africa is no longer able to broadcast on the short wave.
Voice of the People was created in June 2000 by former ZBC employees with help from the Soros foundation and a Dutch NGO, the HIVOS foundation. The police raided its studio in Harare on 4 July 2002 and took away equipment. It was then the target of a bombing on 29 August 2002 which wrecked the entire studio. It was nonetheless able to resume broadcasting.
A frequently-used jamming technique is to broadcast a noise on the same frequency as the target signal using another radio station’s transmitters. The power and location of these transmitters determine the area where the jamming is effective. According to the information obtained by Reporters Without Borders, VOP can now only be heard in the rural part of Matabelele Land, an area not covered by Zimbabwe’s public radio station. This suggests that the noise jamming VOP’s programmes is being broadcast by the Zimbabwean authorities using the public radio station.
These illegal practices, which violate international regulations governing telecommunications, are one of the specialities of the Chinese government. Jamming is standard practice in China, especially the jamming of Tibetan radio stations and foreign radio stations beaming programmes to the west of the country. A Reporters Without Borders release described this policy as the "Great Wall of the airwaves."
According to a source in Zimbabwe, a number of Chinese intelligence officers have been stationed in a luxury hotel in Harare since January. Chinese experts have been invited to give training in telecommunications and radio communications to Zimbabwean technicians under economic and technical cooperation accords signed between China and Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe’s already significant relations with China have been stepped up even more as a result of its diplomatic isolation, which culminated in its departure from the Commonwealth in 2003. Ideological affinity and interest in its natural resources have prompted the Chinese to sign many political and trade accords. China has become the leading foreign investor in Zimbabwe.
Their collaboration in the area of censorship may not be limited to radio broadcasts and could also extend to the pirating of websites. Reporters Without Borders has previously voiced concern about the Zimbabwean government’s acquisition of equipment that could be used to monitor Internet traffic. But its expertise is almost certainly not up to using this kind of equipment, which suggests that it has subcontracted the implementation to its Chinese suppliers.