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This is a special report for MediaShift from the person who set up a clandestine FM radio broadcast in Beijing to protest censorship. The correspondent is associated with Reporters Without Borders, but is writing under the pseudonym “Mina Martin” for fear of retribution from the Chinese government. You can hear the 20-minute broadcast in English, French and Mandarin at this site.

Beijing, 8.08 a.m. on August 8

The voices of Chinese human rights activists can be heard on the radio. A former journalist describes the censorship she experienced, and a human rights activist explains the increasing crackdown on Chinese dissidents that has occurred these past few months. A former political prisoner complains about the appalling conditions in which he was held.

Have the Chinese authorities gone wild and suddenly opened the airwaves? Is this happening in another century when China has opened up to the world and embraced freedom of expression?

Not quite. This is August 8, 2008 at 8.08 a.m., exactly 12 hours before the start of the Olympics Games’ opening ceremony. This radio station is not like the others broadcasting in China this morning. It’s Radio Without Borders, a free radio broadcast launched by Reporters Without Borders, the international press freedom organization, the first clandestine radio broadcast in modern China.

I was a key player in that broadcast, and this is my story.

Broken Promises for Freedom of Speech

I woke up that morning at 5 a.m., after only a few hours of sleep. I should have been tired and jetlagged, having been in Beijing for a few days, exploring the city to find the best places where my colleagues and I could broadcast a pre-recorded radio program to mark the opening of the Games. It would be a symbolic gesture of defiance, protesting the lack of free speech in China and the broken promises of the Olympics organizers.

In 2001, when Beijing was chosen as the Host City for the 2008 Summer Games, the authorities promised an improvement in the human rights status and “complete freedom of the press.” In the months leading to the Games, censorship increased. Chinese editors were forbidden to address sensitive Games-related issues by the Propaganda Department. Dissidents such as Hu Jia, asking for more human rights before the Games and talking to foreign media about the issues, were sent to jail. We call them the Olympic prisoners.

The new rules adopted in 2007 for foreign reporters gave them more flexibility, but numerous incidents and violations were still recorded. And when the Games started, foreign journalists were angered when they were denied access to an uncensored version of the Internet, a violation of the promises made by the International Olympic Committee. Some reporters were even roughed up when they covered the few activist demonstrations or saw their candid sources end up in jail.

We were promised access to free information. It was not delivered. We decided to provide it ourselves. To do this, Reporters Without Borders was going to take over an FM frequency, air some independent information, and give a voice to those who are being denied access to the Chinese media — China’s dissidents. After all, the Chinese authorities are used to jamming international radio stations. This is fair enough.

Finding a Broadcast Spot

When I land in Beijing in early August for a “vacation,” the sky is very foggy but the people look genuinely excited about the Games. Mascots and Beijing 2008 flags have taken over the city. It looks like a gigantic sports club. At the airport, I stress while my luggage goes through security. I am transporting some of the radio’s materials. But the luggage gets through, and they let me in.

The police presence is noticeable but not overwhelming. But it is impossible to estimate the number of plain-clothes policemen and informants. While walking in Tiananmen Square, I was photographed more times than I took pictures. Definitely not a good place to set up a radio broadcast. It would not last more than a few seconds.

Booths with “Olympic volunteers” ready to help you find your way, answer your questions about the Games or help you out with translation requests can be found at every corner.

Impossible to broadcast near the Olympic Village or the Media Center, the access is blocked yards before. I need to find a place from where I can stand less than 100 meters away. The Beijing International Media Center is accessible. I have found it. This will be the place where I can operate the broadcast. My colleagues will be stationed outside of other venues including the international news agencies Reuters and AFP. We want as many reporters to hear the radio so they can relay the news.

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Foreign reporters and other contacts are being warned by Reporters Without Borders HQ in Paris to listen to the frequency 104.4. It was available at the different locations we chose and I thought it would still be free on Aug 8. Plus, the number 4 is considered an unlucky number by the Chinese people because its homonym is the word “death.”

Hiking Sticks as Antennas

On D-Day, we bike to our different destinations. The metro was out of the question; every bag has to go through an x-ray machine. I leave early, in case some streets would be closed, but everything is fine and I settled in at a park a few blocks away, trying to kill time and watching Chinese people practicing tai chi. Despite the tension, I am very focused, eager to get going with our mission. I give up the idea of putting the material together in the park. I am the only Westerner around and I feel as though I am being watched.

At 7:50 a.m., it’s time to go. I take my bag and walk toward the BIMC. It’s early. I can see fewer policemen than I did last night. I sit on a wall on the other side of the road, trying to act casually, as a tourist. The antennas are hidden within hiking sticks. I take them out of my backpack and screw them together with an additional piece supposed to link the antennas and to allow the signal to be transmitted. I put a huge Beijing 2008 flag on top of the hiking sticks and it looks as though I am holding a flagpole.

In my other bag, I have a transmitter, already set on the 104.4 FM frequency. I plug the transmitter’s cable to the sticks. I push the Play button on the MP3 player, and check on my portable radio to see if I can hear anything. I can’t. I check the setup again, everything looks fine but I still can’t hear anything. Panic. What do I do? Then Jef Julliard, the deputy director of Reporters Without Borders in Paris, calls me to confirm the radio can be heard from the media center. Now I just have to wait and see…

Giving Interviews Under Disguise

Some reporters who were tipped off about our broadcast come to interview me with TV or radio equipment. I put on my hat and huge sunglasses. It’s a fashion crime but I need to protect my identity. In case I am not arrested right away, I don’t want to be found at the hotel. A couple of minutes later, cars of policemen are arriving, apparently looking for something. The reporters become nervous but continue interviewing me.

Some policemen pass behind us to try to listen to what we were saying, looking suspicious. I change my tone to “I am so happy to be here, I love sports, Beijing is so nice, blah blah blah.” As soon as the policemen leave the area, I switch right back to “repression has been increasing these past months.”

I will learn later that some policemen are checking the media center with airwaves interception material, trying to locate where the signal is coming from. I spend another 45 minutes answering the journalists’ questions and then it is time to go.

I get rid of my material in the trash can behind me, starting with the MP3 player and the hiking sticks. I walk toward my bike, then leave the area trying to look relaxed but still unable to believe we were able to do the broadcast and we are all still free. I call my colleagues in Beijing with another SIM card and they confirm that they are fine and safe.

I do a few more interviews over the phone and then get rid of my last Chinese cell phone so as not to be found. Our HQ are left to explain to the world what has happened. In the plane on my way back, I think of a Chinese journalist who warned that these would be the no-fun Olympics. I was more afraid of the “no-news Games.” But with Radio Without Borders, we were able to show that the news monopoly is breakable. We made our voice heard, peacefully. It was a way of saying censorship just wouldn’t work. One way or another, the free flow of information cannot be stopped.