The daily shortwave radio show Radio Free Sarawak has faced a number of mysterious disruptions over the past three weeks, prompting a deluge of calls and emails from listeners.
The production team says that the massive response and widespread concern from its regular audience has given them the best indication yet of just how popular and important their show has become to Iban and Malay speaking listeners, particularly in Sarawak’s rural areas.
Callers have originated from Betong, Bintulu, Baram, Miri and elsewhere, reporting different forms of disruption, but mainly complaining that the programme has been regularly cutting out from about 6.30pm (half an hour into the two hour show).
On some days certain districts have complained that there has been no reception at all of the programme.
“Downloads of our daily podcasts have more than tripled over the past few months, both onto laptops and also mobile devices, indicating that people are starting to listen to the show in their cars, but we are pretty convinced that the real core listenership for Radio Free Sarawak are the longhouse folk”, comments the station’s chief web manager.
The show has suffered these disruptions since the middle of November, prompting fears of deliberate interference in many quarters. The major concern has been that the station might have been taken off air following a barrage of criticism from politicians and even some of BN’s top ministers in the state.
There have been a number of nearby storms and atmospheric disturbances that could have caused some of the difficulties.
However, there have been separate reports of intrusion by nearby broadcasters into the station’s SW 15420kHz waveband, including Indian and Chinese speaking stations that should not be venturing into the Radio Free Sarawak frequency.
Fears of deliberate government interference are not groundless on the other hand. BN YBs in particular have been raising complaints about the show and in some cases going so far as to ask the regulatory authorities to jam broadcasts.
Clearly, such figures are concerned that they are finding it difficult to answer the various criticisms of the state government’s record over the last 50 years with regard to the well being of rural people. The show broadcasts daily reports from local communities describing their problems and the litany of broken promises experienced at the hands of BN.
Most serious are the growing concerns about native land grabs and the planned displacement of tens of thousands of people as a result of SCORE. These are all issues that are suppressed by the rest of the broadcast media, which is licensed and tightly regulated by the government itself.
But, whereas the authorities may not like this new voice for the people and freedom of discussion the listeners clearly feel otherwise.
“We are so fearful they have stopped our favourite programme” explained one caller last week. “to miss Radio Free Sarawak feels like losing a member of our family”
Other callers have expressed that the show has helped them understand for the first time that their community has not been alone in its problems, which are in fact facing traditional villages across the state.
“Radio Free Sarawak has helped us to understand what is going on. We are being cheated of our wealth”, commented another. “We need to keep listening to these alternative opinions to what the government has always been telling us”
The good news is that from Sunday the show has again been available state wide in its usual slot from 6-8pm with good reception. One caller, Kassim ak Aji from Bukit Begunan (in Sri Aman parliamentary seat) called last night to inform that at last reception was clear:
“He is really happy. He said his whole longhouse was so miserable for the past few days where there was either no reception at all or there were serious interruption” said the RFS staff member taking the call. “Another caller from Batang Lupar said inhabitants of his 41-door longhouse of Kg Putat, Batang Lupar missed the radio programme deeply and were unusually quiet when they could not hear RFS”.
However, the station remains vigilant, given the open hostility of a government that seems unwilling or unable to tolerate even 2 hours of free speech even on community radio each day.
The producers have received information that the relevant federal authorities have now been approached to attempt a nationwide jamming of the show during the imminently expected general election campaign. Politicians are believed to be canvassing what ‘electronic counter-measures’ might be available to them.
One major problem Malaysia has to take into account, when considering any disruption of RFS’s radio frequencies, is that such action would be highly illegal under international law.
The station has been allocated a frequency and to interfere would be a violation of the International Telecommunications Union Charter which regulates all radio frequencies globally.
Perhaps a wiser approach by BN would be to learn to accept what the rest of the democratic world has to put up with on a daily basis, which is that healthy criticism makes for healthier government.