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London seminar suggests that satellite interference should become criminalised under international law

Experts and professionals from the world of broadcasting in Europe and the Middle East came together on Thursday for a Middle East Monitor-organised seminar in London on the issue of satellite jamming and censorship.

Around 35 participants gathered at the P21 gallery near St Pancras for 'Censorship by satellite jamming during times of conflict: Egypt's coup and the struggle facing agencies and journalists', hearing from three panels of speakers over the course of the day.

Proceedings were broadcast live by Al Jazeera's Mubasher, and were also covered by Al Jazeera, Islam Channel, Al-Hiwar, and Majan television network.

The first session, chaired by The Cordoba Foundation's Anas Altikriti, was opened by Adnan Faour of al Hiwar, who discussed attacks on the station and how those jamming its broadcasts would typically demand a specific change in content. Ibrahim Nassar, Al Jazeera's engineering manager, then addressed the seminar, providing insights into the channel's battle to defy the jammers.

Nassar gave an overview of efforts to interfere with the channel, from the 2010 World Cup – when jamming seemed commercially-motivated – to their coverage of Arab uprisings and in particular events in Egypt – where the jamming was politically-motivated.

The session's third contributor was Alistair Sloan, a London-based journalist who has written for various publications, including on attacks on media freedoms in post-coup Egypt. Sloan, in the context of contemporary Egyptian regime, stressed how a military is structurally not suited to freedom of expression or transparency. He gave examples of the targeting of social media, and also pointed out that there is now self-censorship, too.

In the post-presentations discussion, Catherine Westcott, Senior Frequency Manager, BBC World Service, shared the BBC's experiences of being jammed. Westcott discussed the global framework for dealing with the issue, including the International Telecommunication Union (ITU)'s category of 'harmful interference' – a definition which includes but is not limited to, intentional jamming.

Westcott pointed out that the ITU is a technical body, and therefore has problems when it comes to identifying intent – there is no definition, for example, of politically-motivated jamming. Westcott said that beyond technological tools, there is a need to find common ground for solutions amongst different states and international broadcasters.

After lunch, the second session got under way, chaired by freelance writer, lecturer and broadcaster Jonathan Fryer. With one speaker unable to attend due to illness, the discussion was led by Sabah al-Mukhtar, president of the Arab Lawyers Association and Vice-President of Geneva International Centre for Justice.

Al-Mukhtar discussed the possibilities and avenues for legal procedures to tackle the problem of jamming and censorship, urging attendees to put pressure on international bodies to take action. During the conversation between attendees, the question of defining and criminalising jamming within an international framework was frequently discussed.

In the final session of the day, the panel featured Donnacha deLong, a journalist who recently completed his term as President of the National Union of Journalists, Ibrahim Nassar once again, and Azzam Tamimi, British Palestinian and Editor in Chief of Al-Hiwar TV Channel. Tamimi raised the topic of service providers, and the way in which they are susceptible to government pressure. Tamimi noted that in Egypt, ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak once suspended Al Hiwar's frequency and gave it to Fox Movies.

Nassar said it was vital for satellite operators and the ITU to work together, and for there to be improved European-MENA region cooperation, with broadcasters distributing their content through a variety of mediums so as not to be reliant purely on satellites.

The seminar highlighted that in the case of Egypt the satellite interference had taken a political nature. Emerging in response to the seminar, the main themes focused on how to a coalition between service providers TV networks and satellite companies can be developed, how contracts between service providers and TV networks could be used withstand pressure from governments and how satellite interference could become criminalised under international law.

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