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This essay is part of the Volumetric Sovereignty forum.
s a variety of electromagnetic spectrum, TV signal fits well into Helga Tawil-Souri’s (2017) description of the latter as “the information age’s most political and politicized dimension”. Even more so if one focuses on the terrestrial (in American English “over-the-air”) television transmission in which Earth-based TV stations broadcast audio-visual content by radio waves to antenna-equipped TV receivers in consumers’ residences. The oldest existent TV transmission mode exploited since 1930s with about one fourth of TV users globally (IDATE 2017: 44, Figure 1), it has been one relentlessly embedded in the logic of sovereign political space and some say (Miller, Jervis and Hogg, 2015: 16) the one over which governments have tried to exercise control most frequently in contrast to cable and satellite TV. However, a closer look suggests that terrestrial broadcasting is an eminently telling example of states not fitting their outlines and being barely capable of maintaining supremacy at their fringes. By examining both historical and contemporary examples of cartographic representation and securitization of broadcasting at the border, I hope to further the understanding of interplay between volumetric space and political sovereignty.
Receiving the terrestrial TV signals of neighboring states is a common practice worldwide. Depending on circumstances, borderlanders access foreign television for entertainment, to avoid a broadcasting monopoly, or even out of necessity, when they are unable to connect to the national TV network—as was the case with some districts of Kaliningrad Oblast, a Russian exclave sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland, until the mid 2000s (Novy Kalininrad 2005).
State reaction to broadcasting intrusion from across the border has varied from indifference, to punishment, or to prevention measures. For instance, soon after the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961 the GDR began tearing down or redirecting antennas to curtail West German TV reception. However, that campaign proved largely ineffective as only small pockets of East Germany in the southeast corner and in the northeast along the Baltic coast were unable to pick up West German TV, attracting the popular nickname of “westblind” (Croan, 1979: 148, see dark grey areas on Figure 2). While from a state perspective these “blind” corners represented ideal sovereign realms protected from foreign ideological influence, their reputation on the ground was negative. Marks (1983: 50) provides anecdotal evidence of East Germans rejecting career advancement tied to relocation to “westblind” areas. In other words, access to “foreign” TV in the GDR turned into a powerful spatial differentiator influencing life choices of people.
New international borders established after the dissolution of the USSR and Yugoslavia are fertile grounds for studying the mismatch between imagined continuous national space and discontinuous broadcasting realities. Immediately after the demise of these two large communist federations, some border areas have found themselves out of the range of the newly established national television networks yet covered by TV signals of neighboring countries—former Soviet or Yugoslav republics that inherited TV transmitters in the borderland.
One such example is Russia’s Bryansk Oblast’ (see Figure 3). In Soviet times, its western part relied on retransmission from TV towers in Gomiel Oblast’ (Belarus). Novozybkov, the region’s third biggest city, was chosen as a site to erect a pilot digital broadcasting transmitter. However, it took over two decades to implement the plan. Awaiting the infrastructural improvement, residents of these territories consumed available foreign broadcasting hailing from Belarus and Ukraine. Since its launch in 2011, the Novozybkov TV tower became a transborder transmitter itself, reaching some parts of Chernihiv (Ukraine) and Gomiel Oblasts and thereby returning the neighborly favor.
Figure 3 synthesizes three regional simplified maps of digital terrestrial TV coverage and showcases two forms of cartographic (mis)representation. Map-makers of the Chernihiv and Gomiel Oblast’s used geometrically ideal circles with a radius dependent on transmitter’s height, leaving aside the diversity of terrain and the level of television interference. The Russian map-maker modestly wanted to limit national broadcasting within Russia’s boundaries and filled administrative districts with color depending on the frequency channels of TV stations. All three representations overexaggerate and underestimate coverage of national broadcasting transmitters simultaneously, as radio waves overlaid on terrain do not abide by jurisdictions or borders and almost never stop at the end of a calculated radius.
Besides, any static mapping of broadcast coverage is misleading. Despite a gradual global analogue switch-off and numerous technology advances, digital terrestrial TV signal remains vulnerable to severe weather conditions such as storms and high winds but also high air pressure that enables radio waves from distant transmitters to travel further than normal and cause interference (BBC 2019). Hence TV signals and the spaces they cover are likely to fluctuate, shrink or expand over time depending on the time of day and atmospheric conditions. Similar dependence on the weather and terrain applies to sound waves (Min 2018).
As citizens of the information age, we might assume the notion that broadcasting across national boundaries without the permission of the receiving state constitutes “illegal interference in the internal affairs” (Marks, 1983: 47) is a thing of the past. Sadly, reality brings ample evidence of the contrary. Since the start of the armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine this area became a vivid example of broadcasting confrontation. TV transmitters in Luhansk (194 m) and Donetsk (360 m) by far surpass all other TV towers in the area. Now under the control of Luhansk and Donetsk rebels, they broadcast the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics’ (hereinafter LNR and DNR) TV programmes as well as Russian TV and send their signals all the way to the neighboring regions of Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporizhia.
Seeking to control the electromagnetic waves, Ukraine has commenced the so-called “war of TV transmitters” (see Figure 4) by renovating TV stations along the line separating Ukraine-controlled territories and the unrecognized LNR and DNR. Although borders are known for their symbolic function, broadcasting at the border rarely has been involved in ceremonies promoting national unity. Hence the presence of Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko at the opening of a new TV tower in Karachun (see Figure 5) was even more notable.
“The war of TV transmitters” along the line separating territories controlled by the Ukrainian government and unrecognized LNR and DNR. Map designed by the author in January 2019. Numbers on the map stand for transmitters in: 1 – Donetsk, 2 – Horlivka (built in September 2018), 3 – Luhansk; 4 – Hirnyk (September 2018), 5 – Karachun (December 2016), 6 – Bakhmutovka (August 2017); 7 – Popasna (2019, under construction by the Ukrainian authorities). Colors on the map stand for: a) orange – transmitters operated by LNR and DNR, b) shades of blue – new transmitters built by the Ukrainian authorities to expand Ukrainian broadcasting to territories out of their control.
In parallel to erecting new TV transmitters, the Ukrainian government counteracted anti-Ukrainian broadcasting from LNR and DNR by jamming and blocking their signals. Launched in 2018, the TV signal blocking system was presented as a means to maintain Ukraine’s information security by “stopping Russian propaganda at Ukraine’s informational borders” (Espresso TV 2018). Yet, in spite of these measures, LNR and DNR broadcasting still penetrates into the protected Ukrainian realm.
Writing about sonic warfare, Steve Goodman (2012: 34) calls today’s world saturated by radio and TV broadcasting transmissions an “economy of attention of contemporary capitalism” in which electromagnetic environment has become a space of fierce fight for political sovereignty. Whereas broadcasting over state boundaries may serve as a form of state extension and instrument of soft power, a lack of national broadcast in border regions is commonly perceived as indexical of state weakness. Dual exposure to domestic and foreign broadcasting may create peaceful coexistence of diverse information flows, but if flows are marked as hostile, can lead instead to serious confrontation. Such interstate confrontations could be interpreted as a violation of Art. 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UN General Assembly 1948) which states that “Everyone has the right to … seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”. At the same time such confrontations illustrate the volumetric projection of power with the use of sonic, audio-visual and informational force.
This work was carried out within the project “Transformation of Soviet Republic Borders to International Borders” supported by a grant from the Academy of Finland, decision no. 297544.
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Goodman S (2012) Sonic warfare: Sound, affect, and the ecology of fear. MIT Press.
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