July 22, 2003 | WebMemo on Latin America
For nearly four decades, Cuba has maintained sophisticated electronic intelligence- gathering and offensive capabilities, which range from tapping U.S. phone conversations to jamming radio communications signals and launching computer viruses. To date, U.S. decision-makers have done little more than work around them, since they were never considered serious threats. Washington should reconsider that stance in light of the following events:
To make sure that uncensored information can continue to reach the citizens of Iran and other news-starved nations, Congress should ensure that funds are available to access alternate means of broadcast transmission; and act decisively to counter Cuba's efforts to use the UN to legitimize its interference and censorship of radio and television communications.
New Levels of Interference
Between July 6 and July 14, Voice of America television broadcasts that were intended to provide an alternate news source to the people of Iran were jammed. The culprit appears to be Cuban jammer-in-chief Fidel Castro, whose longstanding efforts to stop U.S. radio and television transmissions to his captive nation have resulted in partial success. Although U.S.-backed Radio Martí has been able to penetrate Castro's curtain of static, no clear TV Martí signals have reached the island since service began in 1990.
According to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency that directs the Voice of America, Cuban jamming was recently detected when Iranian citizens complained they were unable to clearly view VOA's new Persian-language program News and Views. The program had been designed to give Iranian audiences more truthful, objective news than is available through state-controlled media. In addition, signals from U.S.-based TV stations such as Azadi Television and National Iranian TV, which are owned by Iranian Americans critical of Iran's religious fundamentalist government, were blocked.
Both private media and U.S. international broadcasts uplink to telecommunications satellites that relay them to other parts of the world, including the Middle East. One such satellite is positioned over the North Atlantic, close to Cuba. The service provider, Loral Skynet, reportedly determined that interference was being beamed from a site within a few miles of Havana.
In an effort to bar public access to media not controlled by them, Iran's Muslim leaders outlawed satellite dishes in 1995, but many Iranians continue to own them. It is possible that Tehran may have asked Havana, with whom it has friendly relations, for help in interrupting signals at the uplink point which is easier than blocking them once they bounce off the satellite. It was probably no coincidence that the disruption of the VOA broadcasts occurred just as Iranian students were demonstrating over the slow pace of democratic reforms in their country.
BBG Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson says that such jamming "is illegal and interferes with the free and open flow of international transmissions" Indeed, it violates Article 19 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights that establishes the individual right to "seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers," as well as Article 44 of the International Telecommunications Convention that prohibits signal interference.
While blocking foreign news programs from entering one's own territory may be interpreted by some of the more authoritarian signatories of the telecommunications convention as a legitimate means of maintaining internal control, interfering with outside transmissions intended for a third country borders on hostile action.
It would also seem to invite a ham-fisted reaction from the United States. Indeed, seasoned Castro watchers say that the 77-year-old dictator--aware that his days are numbered and his political and economic projects are failures--would like nothing better than to engage the United States in some kind of apocalyptic showdown. But the Bush Administration should not take this bait in a way that would promote a direct conflict with Cuba or in which Castro could portray himself a martyr.
If it is true that Castro disrupted satellite TV signals intended for another audience and protected by international convention, Washington is obliged to stop it. Although Cuba maintains its innocence, the BBG recommended that the State Department protest the Cuban government's suspected meddling and has encouraged international satellite operators to withhold services from states that jam lawful signals.
So far, the State Department has asked the Cuban government to look into the matter--something akin to letting a fox investigate missing hens in a chicken coop. Although it is highly likely that the Cuban state is directly responsible for the incident or at least complicit, we may never know exactly whose hands were on the jamming transmitter's dials. Still, Washington should at least protest the fact that the interference came from Cuban territory and through its statements help educate the world about the dangers of electronic interference. A weak response may invite further mischief.
Fortunately for the case at hand, the Broadcasting Board of Governors was able to buy time on other satellites and eventually re-route the VOA transmissions, but it cannot afford to do so on a routine basis. Congress should ensure that the BBG has the financial resources to use this strategy again, if necessary.
Obviously VOA's coverage is important to Iran's news-starved citizens, otherwise Tehran would not have gone to unprecedented lengths to block such programs. This is a good reason to ensure that U.S. foreign broadcasting can continue to provide an alternate source of news and hope to audiences in captive nations throughout the world.
But this incident is not the end of the story. In a declaration being prepared for the U.N.-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society this coming December, Cuba is proposing new international rules that would legalize the use of electronic interference to block foreign broadcasts within one's own boundaries and even legitimize state control of the media. The United States should be ready to counter this effort as well. Cuba's two-pronged assault on communication freedoms should be nipped in the bud.
Stephen Johnson is Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies.