The ongoing conflict in Ukraine has sparked a resurgence of interest in shortwave broadcasting, as nations strategically harness this medium to serve their individual interests. As in the case of the newly founded Ifrikya FM, which operates from Algeria to sub-Saharan countries.
While the transition to digital is being considered for FM, the war in Ukraine has shown that the ‘old’ short and medium waves are the only ones capable of bypassing the blocks that freedom of information might suffer from an authoritarian regime. By launching the signal from thousands of kilometers away, they cannot be countered except by jamming transmitted in isofrequency by the other side’s transmitters, a practice much used during the Cold War but now almost in disuse. So much so that many broadcasters, from the BBCto RFE-Radio Liberty and Vatican Radio, have dusted off old transmitters or created new transmissions aimed at crisis areas. But international services are also at the service of political propaganda, as in the case of Algerian Ifrikya FM.
The multi-ethnic editorial staff and correspondents in nine countries
Inaugurated in Algiers on 3 May 2023, to coincide with World Press Freedom Day, Ifrikya FM was created ‘to give a voice to African listeners‘ and its slogan is ‘The African voice’. It is actually a strategy of rapprochement with the sub-Saharan area, supported by the relaunch of new air and sea lines between Algeria and Senegal, a country with which diplomatic relations have been renewed. The station broadcasts 24 hours in French, Arabic, Targui, Hausa, and Bambara and has a staff of young journalists from Algeria, Burundi, Chad, Lesotho, Mali, Cameroon, and Niger as well as a network of correspondents in nine African countries. It broadcasts on shortwave on 13790 kHz, on the AlcomSat satellite, and on FM on 105.6 MHz (Algiers/Bouzaréah, replacing Radio Coran) and 98.4 (Tamanrasset, replacing Radio Sahel, which goes off the air).
Schedule and frequency updates for the shortwave service are available through WRTH (World Radio TV Handbook) at https://wrth.info/news/.
Among the many infrastructures damaged by the conflict in Ukraine, there is also the link network that enabled the connection between the regional TV offices and the central newsroom in Kyiv. The main antenna was on the capital’s broadcasting tower, which was damaged in March 2022. Since then, mobile crews who rely on the cellular network to send video footage have been handicapped due to the use of portable equipment which only allows for low-resolution transmission. To solve the problem, Japan thus donated a number of portable mini-repeaters to the public broadcasting company Nacional’na Suspil’na Teleradiokompanija Ukraïny.
After years of inactivity, the Sitkūnai transmitter site is back in operation. Inaugurated in the 1950s, at the beginning of the Cold War, it had a strategic location due to its proximity to the borders of the Iron Curtain: signals heading west would have travelled a shorter distance. Today, however, by a counterpoise of history, the signal goes in the opposite direction, to counter Russian disinformation. The programmes of ‘Radio Pravda‘ are in fact aimed at Russian speakers in Europe and Asia. They are broadcast between 8pm and midnight on 1557 kHz, with a power of 50 kW, which is well heard in Ukraine, Belarus and European Russia. The signal, however, goes beyond the Urals, reaching Siberia, Central Asia and Kazakhstan.
An inconvenient truth
Financed by private donations, Radio Pravda (Russian for ‘Truth’) is based in the Netherlands, where programmes are supervised by the Dutch Media Authority. The transmitter relocated this summer to Sitkūnai, it uses a new antenna, which has been recalculated to transfer the full power of the equipment into the ether. Telecentres (Lithuanian Broadcasting Centre, the state-owned operator of the main radio and TV broadcasting networks in Lithuania) has rebuilt and upgraded part of the infrastructure of the broadcasting centre, which had been disused for some time.
There are ‘two truths’
Radio Pravda is not to be confused with Radio Prawda Dija Rossii (Radio Truth for Russia), a project of Russian and Ukrainian journalists based in Poland, which has been broadcasting on 9670 kHz from the Austrian antennae in Moosbrunn since April 2022. Dutch Radio Pravda, also known as ‘Nasha Lenta‘ (our band), will change its name to Radio Lenta, precisely to distinguish itself from the Polish station.
To counter possible damage to its FM repeater network, Ukraine has switched back on some radio stations operating on medium waves. They had been switched off in 2018, like so many energy-intensive installations supplanted over the years by the frequency modulation network, which has the advantage of offering better audio quality. But reactivating them has become strategic because they are installations that can serve large areas of the country and are often located in areas far from those affected by the conflict, and could operate undisturbed. Of the six reactivated, mainly between 24 and 26 February 2022, only one was damaged. They all broadcast the first programme (UR1 Pershiy Kanal).
Rumours coming from the back
549 kHz from Mykolaiv (Миколаїв)(100 km east of Odessa) with 400 kW: reactivated on 24 February 2022, on air until 6 March 2022 (it had been off since 1 January 2022). 657 kHz from Chernivtsi (Чернівці́)(400 km south of Kiev, near the border with Romania) with 25 kW: reactivated on 26 February 2022 (no longer active since 1 February 2018). 837 kHz from Kharkiv (Ха́рків)(150 kW): on-air since 25 February 2022, discontinued the next day (had ended broadcasting on 1 February 2018, broadcasting the cultural programme UR 3 Radio Kul’tura). 873 kHz from Chasiv Yar (Часів Яр) (25 kW): this is in the Donetsk region, in the self-proclaimed Doneck People’s Republic (it had been off the air since June 2017). 1278kHz from Kurisove (Курісове), near Odessa (100 kW): reinstated on 8 March 2022 (it had been broadcasting the cultural programme UR 3 Radio Kul’tura until 1 February 2018). 1404 kHz from Izmail (Ізмаї́л)(in the Odessa region, but close to the border with Romania): restored since 26 February 2022.
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.
To inform millions of refugees, who have arrived in neighbouring countries, Poland has been broadcasting Українське Rадіо (Radio Ukraine) on a DAB channel since 4 March to inform Ukrainians in their mother tongue. The digital network reaches 70 per cent of the Polish population, focusing on urban areas and main communication routes. Similar situation in the Czech Republic: Radio Ukraine has been included in digital radio multiplexes since 11 a.m. on Friday, 4 March and is repeated on the website of the national radio station, Český Rozhlas. Pictured is a coverage map showing where the digital signal can be received on Czech territory.
Longwaves cover the whole of Ukraine and the Russians can’t “switch them off”
But Poland has done more: Polskie Radio Jedynka (the first Polish public radio programme), shortly after the invasion, started broadcasting news items in Ukrainian, produced by the native speakers working on the international radio programmes. The channel is also broadcast on long waves, on 225 kHz, from the Solec Kujawski/Kabat broadcasting centre, which with its 1200 kW of power (reduced to 700 at night) covers most of the Ukrainian territory. In this way, the population in war zones can be informed even if the telecommunications networks are interrupted.
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.