When can states jam radio broadcasts?

The U.S. government’s Broadcasting Board of Governors, which is responsible for overseeing most government and government-supported broadcasting, is complaining that Iran’s efforts to jam tramissions of certain broadcasts violate international rules: Jamming is prohibited under rules of the International Telecommunications Union.  The recent jamming affected not only U.S.-supported programming, but also the British Broadcasting Corporation. ...

By , a professor at Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies.

The U.S. government's Broadcasting Board of Governors, which is responsible for overseeing most government and government-supported broadcasting, is complaining that Iran's efforts to jam tramissions of certain broadcasts violate international rules:

The U.S. government’s Broadcasting Board of Governors, which is responsible for overseeing most government and government-supported broadcasting, is complaining that Iran’s efforts to jam tramissions of certain broadcasts violate international rules:

Jamming is prohibited under rules of the International Telecommunications Union.  The recent jamming affected not only U.S.-supported programming, but also the British Broadcasting Corporation.

International Broadcasting Bureau Director Richard M. Lobo called the most recent interference “an outrage (and) a deplorable violation of well-established international agreements” in a statement issued when the incident started.

The jamming coincided with reports of street demonstrations and mass arrests of Iranians protesting falling currency exchange rates. Both VOA and RFE/RL report that in some instances, interference starts just before newscasts, and ends just afterwards.

In February, the ITU called upon the world’s nations to take “necessary actions” to stop intentional interference with satellite transmissions. Earlier, the BBG and other international broadcasters called for action against jamming.

The state of international law on when states may jam radio broadcasts is, as always, open to some debate. As Jamie Metzl demonstrated in this 1997 article (JSTOR access required), the United States and the Soviet Union clashed regularly on the issue of whether states possess a sovereign right to jam radio broadcasts they deem dangerous. For the most part, the United States maintained an absolutist position against jamming.

In the mid-1990s, the question arose often in the context of anti-genocide efforts. Extremist elements in Rwanda used radio to devastating effect in 1994, and a number of activists and scholars called for adjustments to the rules so that broadcasts inciting atrocities could be blocked. Metzl himself argued for a new approach to the issue from a humanitarian perspective:

It should now be possible to consider interpretations of incitement and national sovereignty not in terms of ideological competition, but in terms of practical effectiveness, humanitarian principles, and the growing consensus concerning international human rights. Such reconsideration might lead back to the more nuanced view of radio jamming and freedom of expression of the early postwar period…New and revised interpretations of these documents might then recognize a legal basis for new standards regarding the right to employ offensive radio jamming in extreme cases, particularly those of incitement to mass human rights abuses and genocide.

The problem, of course, is that every state has its own definition of "extreme circumstances." As Metzl himself acknowledges in the article, loopholes are likely to be exploited. 

David Bosco is a professor at Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies. He is the author of The Poseidon Project: The Struggle to Govern the World’s Oceans. Twitter: @multilateralist

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