Beijing -- The banned Falun Gong spiritual movement jammed one of China's main television satellites for eight days and briefly beamed a video into millions of homes during last month's World Cup soccer finals, the government said today.
The hijacking of the government's Sinosat-1 satellite disrupted TV transmissions from June 23 to 30 and scratched plans for a live broadcast of a speech by President Jiang Zemin. It was the latest act of defiance by a group that has survived a three-year campaign of repression; it also marked the most sophisticated challenge so far to the Communist Party's control of the media.
Chinese officials said Falun Gong members began bombarding the satellite with illegal signals shortly after 7 p.m. on June 23, interrupting transmission of nine national channels and 10 provincial stations to rural areas without access to regular TV broadcasts. Television screens went blank for several minutes, then began playing a Falun Gong video with images of followers meditating in a stadium and then a plaza. Officials said the video was cut off after only 20 seconds, replaced by a blank screen again.
Chinese officials declined to say how many people were affected, but Sinosat-1 is central to a project launched in 1998 to expand TV access to the nation's most remote regions. More than 70 million people in 100,000 villages rely on it, according to the government.
The government said frequent interference with its broadcasts continued until June 30, but offered no other details. A Hong Kong-based human rights group reported that Falun Gong managed to transmit its material into Chinese homes at least one more time, on June 25, with viewers in some parts of China seeing 15 minutes of its propaganda.
Falun Gong members have interrupted Chinese broadcasts before, hacking into cable systems in several cities this year. But taking over a satellite signal is much more complicated -- and much more difficult for the government to track down and stop.
Countries have jammed satellite transmissions for political reasons, but it is unusual for an independent group to do so, and rare if not unprecedented for anyone to hijack a satellite signal, said Roger Smith, an official with the Geneva-based international organization that regulates satellite communications.
"This is extremely despicable and represents yet another crime committed by the Falun Gong cult organization," said Liu Lihua, a top broadcast official in the Ministry of Information Industry. "We call on the international community to jointly condemn this mean act."
Liu said the government had evidence implicating "overseas-based Falun Gong cult organizations manipulated and directed by Li Hongzhi," the leader of the Buddhist-like sect who lives in New York. But Liu declined to present the evidence and acknowledged that the government was still trying to trace the source of the signals.
Levi Browde, a Falun Gong spokesman, denied Li organized the satellite hijacking, and described it as a grass-roots attempt to fight government propaganda. "The state-run media is one of the strongest weapons the government uses to persecute people and incite hatred," he said. "These people are trying to get the truth out."
Christian Lyngemark, who runs a clearinghouse for technical data on satellite channels, said the Falun Gong members appeared to have overpowered the government's signal with their own, which would require a large satellite dish and expensive equipment.
He said they must have been transmitting from within China or one of its neighbors to reach Sinosat-1, possibly with a mobile apparatus to make it more difficult to track them down. As they moved farther from China, he said, they would need larger satellite dishes and more powerful equipment.