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Don't Spread Jamming

It sounds like a giant V-chip to protect adults from violence. Worthy idea. But beware of the jam squad.

A former UN human rights official, writing in Foreign Affairs magazine, has proposed a novel UN "jam squad" to fly out to world crisis zones and block radio or TV broadcasts that "incite people to violence."

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The author of this fine-sounding proposal, Jamie Metzl, makes a strong case. He quotes, for example, a Rwanda radio station that aired lists of enemies ("those cockroaches"), which it urged listeners to hunt down and kill, with "spears, clubs, guns, swords, stones." Such incitement to murder contributed to the terrible holocaust in which some 500,000 Tutsis (and Hutus unwilling to attack the Tutsis) were brutally killed.

If ever a case sounded like crying fire in a crowded theater, this broadcast would qualify. Any civilized human being would want to take steps to prevent such carnage. Even First Amendment lawyers would probably agree that the crowded theater analogy would justify muzzling the terrorist radio station.

But does that mean a UN "jam squad" should be created and sent to block broadcasts wherever incitement to violence might be expected?

No. There's too much risk that mission creep could occur. Well-intentioned officials might decide to jam suspect stations lest they say something dangerous. The result could be blocking stations hither and yon because a soldier makes a bellicose threat, or a strongman voices defiance toward UN observers.

It's one thing to withhold aid to, say, Laurent Kabila's new Congo regime when it plays delaying games with the UN. It would be quite another to start jamming stations in a sovereign nation.

So, scrap the idea? Not necessarily. Nothing precludes the world organization from supplying "truth squad" information to counter hate-inciting broadcasts. A response would be aired by Security Council-approved forces, or made available to reporters for shortwave broadcasters.

Where repeated venom like that in Rwanda occurs, the UN body should authorize a specific, limited jamming effort. That would deal with inciting genocide. But it wouldn't create a new fire brigade that could, eventually, make jamming a habit.

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