When Radio Goes Bad: RF communications and the increased violence in South Sudan

I was reading an update about the increasing ethnic violence in South Sudan forwarded to me by a colleague, and noted the fact that radio is being used to organize and encourage violence in South Sudan. For those who have studied or read about the genocide in Rwanda, radio was one of the key mediums employed by Hutu extremists for encouraging and organizing violence. I think there are significant socio-political differences between the increasing violence in South Sudan and the genocide in Rwanda, so I just want to focus on the challenges related to preventing the radio-driven organization of violence, since radio broadcasts encouraging targeted violence against civilians were heard during the recent massacre in Bentiu, South Sudan.

We have to start with the laws, regulations and norms of radio broadcasting and spectrum management. Broadcast spectrum has traditionally been treated as a public good, managed by governments. Indeed if we look at the language from the preamble from the recent revisions of the International Telecommunications Union’s 2012 Radio Regulations, it’s pretty state-centric. This gives broadcast spectrum a certain level of sovereignty, and traditionally there is a respect for that sovereignty – generally, jamming another country’s broadcast frequencies is frowned upon, even though there’s a long history of doing so for the purposes of tactical advantage during wartime or in pursuit of psychological operations during the Cold War. Basically, radio jamming historically isn’t something that friendly or neutral countries (openly…) do to each other.

This is important, because along with apparently being expensive and inconvenient, the U.S Department of Defense used the spectrum sovereignty argument to avoid jamming hate-radio broadcasts during the Rwandan genocide. Would jamming hate radio have prevented the escalation and organization of violence? Unfortunately it’s rhetorical question since the U.S. never tried, but I’d be inclined to say that it wouldn’t have helped the organizers of the Rwandan genocide. In fairness, much of the organization on the ground was developed over extended periods of indoctrination and training of youth militias, so blocking radio wouldn’t have stopped pre-determined operations that didn’t rely on it. If anything it likely would have had the effect of a panopticon, forcing the organizers to realize there was a much bigger player involved that had the military capacity to selectively jam national communication infrastructure. At the very least this would have caused break downs in vertical communication, possibly giving some nominal advantage to the peacekeeping mission.

So how does this help us frame the disturbing news that radio is being used in South Sudan to encourage or organize violence? Unfortunately it’s unlikely we’re going to see large scale radio jamming operations; the governments with the ability to do that still have ongoing diplomatic missions in South Sudan, and using their military assets to jam transmission frequencies would probably be interpreted as a violation of sovereign control of spectrum, as well as a likely violation of South Sudanese airspace. There could be a role for SMS text and multimedia messaging to provide early warning, but the problem is that even if peacekeepers get the text messages, it’s questionable whether they’d be able to protect at risk populations.

Unfortunately once violence hits a certain scale local violence prevention efforts, ICT supported or not, won’t be enough to stop it. Crowdsourcing and ICTs merely become tools that aid in accounting for the violence unless the international community is willing to provide a peacekeeping mission that is manned and equipped to realistically protect the population.

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