Pirating The Airwaves
Squall 14, Autumn 1996, pg. 57.
For states run by military juntas and dodgy governments, pirates represent a dangerously unchecked voice over the airwaves. For people living under such regimes, the underground media may be their only means of political expression. Pirate radio is proving such people can have a voice against oppressive regimes.
In Taiwan, a number of underground radio stations are run by opposition parties or individuals opposed to the ruling Kuomintang Party (KMT). The KMT control most of Taiwan’s electronic media. The pirates are free to criticise the KMT and encourage listeners to call in with their views. Rather than talk in the official Mandarin dialect, they use the Taiwanese dialect: “We have no legitimate voice. The radio stations are the only way people can hear the truth. But every time we broadcast we risk imprisonment.” There have already been Government crackdowns on the stations. A Taiwanese Government spokesperson insisted that the “raids were carried out simply to maintain broadcasting standards and protect the rights of legal stations.”
A pirate radio station operating in the Serbian capital of Belgrade, Radio B92, which was set up in 1989, has committed itself to complete broadcasting independence and gone to great lengths to offer action and information that run counter to government propaganda. They organised public protests against President Slobadan Milsevic’s rule, set up a publishing arm to print pamphlets and books about the war, sent books to Sarajevo’s library and organised club nights. All this against a background of UN sanctions which denied them access to tapes, transmitters and records, which has to be smuggled in. Radio B92 have managed to combine this with a music policy that allows only two hours of mainstream music a week.
In the Solomon Islands, Radio Free Bougainville operators are risking their lives to transmit information about the war there. Bougainville has been consistently subject to exploitative colonisation, and successively ‘handed over’, first to Australia, and now Papua New Guinea. Its recent bid for independence has resulted in blockades that are denying people medical supplies and facilities, resulting in more than 8,000 deaths since April 1990. Villages have been destroyed, people executed, women raped, concentration camp style ‘care centres’ set up and schools and hospitals closed.
Freedom of thought and expression has been systematically denied, and the blockade has prevented independent journalists from visiting the island, where only “acceptable” journalists are allowed.
Radio Free Bougainville is fighting against this by broadcasting on its own terms. To power their generator they often have to resort to coconut oil, and it takes the oil of 40 coconuts to provide power for one hour. The risks are enormous and there are reports of four people who were caught harvesting the coconuts by the army and consequently executed.
The fight continues, and internationally the power and potential of pirate radio is being displayed. Not only does it grant people a level of autonomy, it offers them a voice against conditions they might otherwise be denied, and it is an essential channel of information and expression that can ultimately lead to political change.
Cath Parker and Tammi D Wood