1 March: Moscow tries to switch off the capital’s broadcasters
At the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine, Russia targeted social networks, which in response raised their defences to prevent tracking of users in the occupied territories and blocked Kremlin-controlled media. But since March, the target has been extended to radio and television infrastructures, even though the Russian army is keeping Ukrainian mobile phone networks intact for use due to technical problems with encrypted military communication systems). Europe’s response is not long in coming.
Ukraine is a largely flat country, and in the capital, even if antennas were placed on a skyscraper (the tallest, the 178-metre Klovsky Descent 7A, was inaugurated in 2015), the signal would be absorbed by the ground after a few tens of kilometres, due to the earth’s curvature. A respectable transmission tower is therefore used to extend coverage. Built between 1968 and 1973, during the time of the Soviet Union, it has a diameter at the base of 90 metres and is 380 metres high. It is the tallest in the world (among those made entirely of metal) and the tallest building in Ukraine. (Wikipedia info here).
On GoogleMaps, there are several pictures and with StreetView you can ‘walk’ around the tower, changing perspective.
2 March: BBC responds by dusting off the short waves
In order to inform the Ukrainian population, the BBC is reactivating two short-wave frequencies that used to broadcast the news of the World Service for four hours a day (broadcasts to Europe had ended in 2008). These are the British transmitters in Woofferton. Built during World War II, and privatised at the end of the Cold War, it is still used by the BBC to broadcast the World Service and leased to other broadcasters (Deutsche Welle, Voice of America, Voice of Vietnam).
After Facebook, Meta extends profile protection to Instagram; YouTube blocks some Kremlin-run media (preventing ads and revenue generation) and puts videos at the bottom of the recommendation list. Twitter restricts access to major telecom providers.
February 27: After Facebook, it’s Twitter’s turn. The EU takes the field and shuts down state media
Without making official announcements, activity on Twitter is slowed down, as Netblocks, which does global-scale monitoring of how the Internet works, notes. Users can get around the obstacles by masking their identity by accessing from a VPN network (which by preventing localization ensures privacy). European Union blocks Russia Todayand Sputnik: the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, during a press conference in Brussels announces that Russian state-controlled media and their subsidiaries will no longer be allowed to broadcast their lies. YouTube also blocks Russia Today and prevents it from monetizing content globally.
February 28: Foiled by social hacking of Ukrainian public figures
Facebook removes fake accounts activated by Russia and Kyiv to target public figures in Ukraine. Twitter suspends more than a dozen accounts and blocks the sharing of several links.
The day after the beginning of the invasion, the tension rises on social networks: the protection measures are answered with a partial blockade
Facebook protects Users? Putin obscures it
Nick Clegg, President, global affairs of Meta (company that controls Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger), in a Tweet warns users that technicians have implemented security measures to protect the accounts of Ukrainian citizens: they will be able to prevent users who are not part of the friends from downloading or sharing the profile photo or see the posts published. The function “profile block“, was created to protect journalists, activists and people “exposed” in high-risk areas, and has already been used during the American withdrawal from Afghanistan to protect the population from Taliban retaliation. An operations center has also been set up, with experts and native speakers to follow developments in the conflict and act promptly, possibly activating other tools designed for emergency areas.
We had talked about the disinformation travelling over the airwaves, in particular pirate transmissions in the 7 MHz amateur radio band. This was before the start of military operations, and especially in the areas of the Donbas, already in the hands of Russian separatists. But since the beginning of the invasion, the parallel war on the airwaves has spread to social networks and the web. Let us reconstruct the chronology of the escalation.
24 February: Russian authorities’ warning to free voices
On the day of his speech to the nation, in which Putin recognised the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics and justified the invasion, the Russian authorities intervened to stem the flow of images and news from Ukraine. The Federal Service for the Supervision of Mass Communication (Roskomnadzor), notes that unverified information is on the rise and gives a warning: it reiterates that only official sources are reliable and recalls that the sanctions amount to five million roubles (over 50 thousand euros) and provide for the seizure of materials.
The pressure exerted by Russia on the former Soviet Republic is taking place on many fronts: from the military one, with the deployment of troops at the borders, to disinformation, which travels on social networks but also on the airwaves. Today the 7 MHz band, reserved for radio amateurs, is flooded with propaganda messages or messages denigrating radio operators on both sides. Francesco Cecconi discusses these messages on the Radio Hernica website, putting them into historical perspective (during the Cold War, Radio Tirana raged over the amateur radio bands). He then discusses the manoeuvres implemented by radio amateurs to counter “The Buzzer”, the Russian system that broadcasts encrypted messages on short waves, Army FM, a Ukrainian station created to counter Russian transmissions, and Vesti FM, a Russian channel broadcast from Moldavia. Audio documents with recordings of pirate broadcasts complete the in-depth analysis.
The broadcaster funded by the US Congress to “promote democratic values and institutions” has racked up fines of 169 million roubles ($2.277 million) for violating rules governing the presence of foreign media in Russia. This is an order issued by the Roskomnadzor (Federal Service for Supervision in the Sphere of Connection and Mass Communication), which as of 23 September 2020 has required foreign media to preface messages and materials broadcast with the indication that they are produced by a foreign media outlet. The broadcaster has appealed to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to verify the legality of the application of Russian legislation for foreign media against them and says it intends to appeal all court decisions.
During the Cold War, the FM band in Eastern European countries was different. Radio stations transmitted between 65.8 and 74 MHz (except in East Germany), called the OIRT band; frequencies used in the West by television. As a result, citizens could not pick up signals from capitalist countries, and vice versa. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the band was gradually abandoned, but there are still several nations in Europe that have not switched off all their OIRT transmitters: Belarus, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine. In recent years, however, the decommissioning of the band has accelerated and the signals are now drastically reduced. In a number of articles, we examine the situation in each country.
Russia: in large cities the switch off goes slowly
In the report published in 2020, we talked about the decision of the government to move the broadcasters from the OIRT band to the CCIR (87.5-108.0 MHz). The state-owned Radio Rossii, which has already deactivated many installations, proceeds to switch off as soon as the communications authority makes available a frequency in the CCIR band. The switch-off has gone fast in the most peripheral areas of the endless Russian Federation, where the band is free, but it is going slow in the biggest cities, where the band is close to saturation. It also does not help that Russia uses a very “wide” channel spacing: in Moscow, the standard distance between stations is 400 kHz (while in many European countries it is 300 kHz, and drops to 200 kHz in some large Italian metropolitan areas). So in St. Petersburg, there are still four frequencies active in the OIRT: Rossii on 66.3 MHz, Radio Peterburg on 69.47 MHz, Orfey on 71.66 MHz, and Grad Petrov on 73.1 MHz. On YouTube you can listen to a scan of the OIRT band, recorded on March 27, 2021, and hear the four stations. In Moscow, only 66.44 MHz (Rossii from Ostankino), 68.0 MHz (Avtoradio), and 72.92 MHz (Radio Radonezh) are active. In the Kaliningrad Oblast (Russian enclave wedged between Latvia and Poland), 65.9 MHz and 66.02 MHz of Radio Rossii have been switched off, and only 72.11 (Radio Shanson) is on air.
Launched in 1973 at the height of the Cold War, The Buzzer (as it has been nicknamed by radio amateurs and listeners) is a ghost radio station that has been broadcasting bizarre transmissions non-stop on 4625 kHz ever since. It broadcasts a sonar-like sound, interspersed with pauses, the purpose of which is not known; sometimes short voice messages in Russian are broadcast. Over the years, the community of radio amateurs and listening enthusiasts has monitored the transmissions and found technical flaws, such as when in 2010 the transmissions were interrupted for a day and two days later voices were heard in the background, as if a microphone had been left open. The Infinity News article reconstructs the history of “The Buzzer”, while other details can be found on Wikipedia.
Due to the Covid-19 crisis the Ministry of Digital Development, Communications and Mass Media of the Russian Federation offered radio and television broadcasters the opportunity to reduce the power of their transmitters and to turn them off at night (from 24.00 to 6.00) in order to save energy. This measure is in place from 24th April to 31st December, 2020. However, very few radio stations have taken this up. They are afraid that reducing power and coverage area could cause a drop in the numbers of listeners and commercials. Advertising is already going very badly. Advertising spots have dropped by 70% and 80% in many areas of the country and the ministry believes that broadcasters’ budgets will be more than halved this year (their revenues will be down by about 8 billion rubles)
Subsidies and cuts to rent and royalties
In order to compensate for financial losses, radio stations are asking for funding as well as a lowering of RTRS fees (Russian Television and Radio Broadcasting Network, the company that manages transmitters), which are considered two or three times higher than those of private companies. They would also appreciate a respite with a lowering of royalties for music rights. The Deputy Minister of Digital Development, Communications and Mass Media of the Russian Federation, Alexey Volin, declared that their request for subsidies was unrealistic and stated that the measures currently in place were sufficient. However, he was more open on the subject of lowering royalties which he declared was a more reasonable request.
They did not make it to blowing out their 87 birthday candles. The transmission towers (215 metres high), also known as Radio Comintern located in the transmitting centre in Moscow, were packed with dynamite and demolished. Inaugurated on May 1st, 1933, it was the world’s most powerful (500kW) radio station in a period when radio was the only means of propaganda. After broadcasting for seventy years, it was closed in 2003 and became an attraction because the dilapidated towers were being climbed, even by free climbers. An article on Mediaradio.info recounts its history with images of the site. Radio Comintern was named after the Third International, an organisation that advocated World Communism.