from Francisc (Fery) Grunberg, YO4PX on April 26, 2009

Dictators and Amateur Radio
by Francisc Grünberg, YO4PX

Amateur radio was always complicated by dictators with distrust and fear, as a suspect and potentially dangerous avocation.

The ability to transmit messages over the barbed wire of the "Iron Curtains" and across heavily guarded borders, where weapons are pointed more into the country than out, was associated in the Romanian People's Republic, and in the other former or current totalitarian régimes as well, with the activity of spies on the enemy's payroll.

In the dictators' paranoiac imagination these spies, disguised as radio amateurs, were trying to undermine the "heroic effort of the people for the construction of the new society": another name for the total control and submission of its citizens, the final endeavour of all régimes with socialist, communist, military, tribal or fundamentalist ideologies.

Risking the simplification inherent to any generalization, the degree of democracy present in a country is directly proportional to the number of its licensed radio amateurs, the liberties they enjoy and the administrative obstacles they may or may not confront. Today, an indication of such freedom is the absence of bureaucratic hindrances imposed on the importation of amateur radio rigs, getting a transceiver through customs at national frontiers, and the willingness to allow visitors' time-limited amateur radio activities.

Western democracies acknowledge radio amateurs' merit, as pioneers of the short waves to humanity's benefit and for the services they rendered and continue to render to their communities. Laws in these countries grant radio amateurs and their equipment freedom of movement and activity thanks to reciprocal agreements. The CEPT Convention provided a huge step forward as it simplified operation for amateurs of the signatory countries.

In Spain amateur radio is considered a form of art. In Güimar, Canary Islands, a statue was dedicated to amateur radio, with a syrinx (panpipes) representing the five (in 1974) amateur short wave bands. Many American presidents proclaimed amateur radio a national resource.

For whole decades BY1PK was the only workable station in China - until silenced by the infamous Cultural Revolution. Now we hear many BY calls and, on the VHF and LF bands, thousands of licensed QRP stations. No doubt the tenacious efforts of Martti Laine, OH2BH played a decisive role in this opening to the world.

After many years of silence in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, a single station, YI1BGD was licensed. This followed a demonstration by Erik Sjölund, SMOAGD, who made some 50 contacts before Iraqi officials who were amazed by the number of hams eager to contact a new country.

North Korea authorized only a few sporadic operations, the most productive being the activity of Ed Giorgadze, 4L4FN. He made more than 16,000 QSO's before the authorities shut him down. KA2HTV's recent failure doesn't offer much hope the situation will soon change.

Myanmar's (Burma) military junta is quite reluctant to issue licenses to foreign operators. But they are occasionally heard, especially when intended to convince the generals that liberalizing amateur radio could boost the country's image to a world concerned by human rights violations.

Contact with an Albanian station was an unattainable dream during the Stalinist dictatorship of Enver Hodja. Now there are some active stations thanks to powerful associations that championed getting a ZA call sign on the air after many decades.

In Poland all amateurs were forced to hand over their equipment following the imposition of martial law, inspired by the Soviet Union, in December 1981. General Jaruzelski stifled in bloodshed the protests of the trade union Solidarnos?, and the SP prefix was absent from the bands for almost two years.

Turkey for many years was prominent on the Most Wanted Countries List, now a few local stations and occasional visitors can be worked from TA-land.

Under the Taliban régime licensing a YA station was hardly conceivable in a country where the most elementary human rights were violated. Now hams working for international organizations are sporadically active from Afghanistan.

But where tradition is shattered, short instruction courses and donated gear cannot replace the passion and knowledge transmitted from generation to generation, from mentor to disciple, which ensures the perpetuity and development of the hobby. Hopefully, the spirit will reignite in Libya, Yemen, Rwanda, Iran, Sudan, Mount Athos, Somalia, Congo, Cambodia, Laos, countries and entities where amateur radio activity is inexistent or drastically restricted...

There are cases when the oppressive régime feels itself impregnable and magnanimously allows the licensing of a few "reliable" residents, intimates of the power wielders, for propaganda's sake to defend itself from the international amateur radio community's disapproval. Some dictatorships, after lengthy negotiations, authorize time-limited activities for foreign operators present as United Nations officials, NGOs or peace-keeping forces.

In Romania the dictatorial régime branded amateur radio as well. For 45 years the state of one's "dossier" was decisive in obtaining a license. In the 1950s those applicants who hadn't a "healthy origine" (i.e., originated from a family of workers or peasants) could experience huge difficulties, and not only in the realm of amateur radio. Family members living in the West, unfavourable information from the schools' secretary of the Communist Party, from the college or employer's "cadres office" (today's personnel office) regarding the applicant's lack of enthusiasm and attachment to the "Party Line," denunciations, containing mostly mendacious and misinterpreted information - all were grounds for denial without explanation of the application or suspension of a previously issued license.

Truly impartial historians of Romanian amateur radio should record its decades-long constraints as subordinate to the army. This practice followed piously on the heels of the Russian pattern. The Securitate (the former Romanian secret police) exercised relentless control of the licensing procedure through the so-called Higher Radio Commission, overseeing the entire activity of the radio amateurs, beginning with the assignments in leading positions in the county clubs and in the Romanian Amateur Radio Federation and ending with the accurate inventory of the equipment owned.

In the 1980s the Radio Control Centres launched a series of residential inspections and license suspensions for varying periods of time. Was it merely coincidence that many holders of those suspended licenses were also members of reputable foreign clubs? This group included the most active and notable amateurs, authentic ambassadors of Romania on the air.

Yearly "informative materials" drawn up by the Securitate and presented with the force of "truth" cited "negative aspects," like "relations with foreigners" (regulated by notorious Law 23 requiring compulsory detailed reports about the nature of these relationships and their progress), the correspondence of amateurs, alike the correspondence of all other presumptive "unfaithful" citizens, was inspected and systematically censored. Receiving a transceiver from friends or relatives in Western countries was a terrible humiliation and a matter of suspicion - an opportunity for blackmail.

But not only amateur radio was subject to thorough supervision. The presidential couple Ceausescu deemed profoundly undesirable: computers, video recorders, TV antennas pointed towards Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary, TV satellite dishes, books, magazines and newspapers from abroad, everything enabling the free circulation of ideas and information, not to mention the free movement of Romanian citizens.

We don't have yet sufficient and complete information about the Stalinist trial of George Craiu, YO3RF, and the ordeal of his imprisonment. We don't know the truth about the conviction of YO7DZ. I don't think amateurs are aware of the fact that in the 1987 anticommunist uprising in Brasov, two years before the revolution and the régime's collapse, a ham was among the participants. He was charged during the inquiry with "subversive communication with the West," although he was a short wave listener and possessed only a receiver! After 1989 he also faced a defamation lawsuit, because he thought he recognised a member of Parliament on the TV screen as his torturer. We don't know how many persons abandoned hope after their failed attempts to obtain a license.

To understand the past a people must become acquainted with it and finally to admit it. With no hard feelings, no resentments, but fully aware of the truth. This truth must not be silenced and buried under the dust of archives. I think it's important to be uttered, recorded and known, in order to avoid all the tragic mistakes of the history.

Francisc Grünberg, YO4PX