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“Pirate Radio” and the Law of the Sea– Video and Analysis

When I teach the law of the sea, we always spend some time discussing the heinous crimes that are prohibited on the high seas. Some of them are quite familiar– piracy, slave trade, narcotics trafficking. But there is one outlawed activity that is normally not so familiar to the students– pirate broadcast. Article 109 of the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea provides:

Article 109

Unauthorized broadcasting from the high seas

1. All States shall cooperate in the suppression of unauthorized broadcasting from the high seas.

2. For the purposes of this Convention, “unauthorized broadcasting” means the transmission of sound radio or television broadcasts from a ship or installation on the high seas intended for reception by the general public contrary to international regulations, but excluding the transmission of distress calls.

3. Any person engaged in unauthorized broadcasting may be prosecuted before the court of:

(a) the flag State of the ship;

(b) the State of registry of the installation;

(c) the State of which the person is a national;

(d) any State where the transmissions can be received; or

(e) any State where authorized radio communication is suffering interference.

4. On the high seas, a State having jurisdiction in accordance with paragraph 3 may, in conformity with article 110, arrest any person or ship engaged in unauthorized broadcasting and seize the broadcasting apparatus.

Note the extent of jurisdiction in paragraph. And Article 110, give those same states the right to “visit” and, in accordance with Article 109, seize a vessel on the high seas:

Article 110

Right of visit

1. Except where acts of interference derive from powers conferred by treaty, a warship which encounters on the high seas a foreign ship, other than a ship entitled to complete immunity in accordance with articles 95 and 96, is not justified in boarding it unless there is reasonable ground for suspecting that:

(a) the ship is engaged in piracy;

(b) the ship is engaged in the slave trade;

(c) the ship is engaged in unauthorized broadcasting and the flag State of the warship has jurisdiction under article 109;

(d) the ship is without nationality; or

(e) though flying a foreign flag or refusing to show its flag, the ship is, in reality, of the same nationality as the warship.

2. In the cases provided for in paragraph 1, the warship may proceed to verify the ship’s right to fly its flag. To this end, it may send a boat under the command of an officer to the suspected ship. If suspicion remains after the documents have been checked, it may proceed to a further examination on board the ship, which must be carried out with all possible consideration.

3. If the suspicions prove to be unfounded, and provided that the ship boarded has not committed any act justifying them, it shall be compensated for any loss or damage that may have been sustained.

4. These provisions apply mutatis mutandis to military aircraft.

5. These provisions also apply to any other duly authorized ships or aircraft clearly marked and identifiable as being on government service. (emphasis added)

I certainly understand why pirate broadcasting is illegal: broadcasters avoid any domestic regulation, they can interfere with the signals of lawful broadcasters, they escape payment of royalties, and so on. But I have always found it interesting that these persons get grouped in the same category as pirates and slave traders. And it is interesting to note that the Convention affords enforcement jurisdiction to a wider variety of states that it does for narcotics traffickers.

Historically, there have been a number of pirate broadcasters. One of the most notable was the so-called “Radio Caroline,” which broadcast from off the coast of the United Kingdom and elsewhere on the high seas. In reality, there were a series of “Radio Carolines” beginning in the 1960s.  Pictured below is the Ross Revenge, one of the later ships from which Radio Caroline broadcast.

Most recently, a motion picture has been produced that was “inspired” be the exploits of some of these real-life pirate broadcasters. Released in the UK under the title, The Boat that Rocked, the movie is slated to be released in the United States in November of this year under the title Pirate Radio. Featuring an amazing cast that includes Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Ryhs Ifans, and Emma Thompson, the film seems to have great promise. I wonder what it will have to say about the law of the sea . . . .

Philip Seymour Hoffman as The Count in Pirate Radio

Philip Seymour Hoffman as "The Count" in Pirate Radio

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Welcome! Who am I?



Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.