Raspberry Pi, the credit card-sized computers available for as little as $5, are now being deployed in Syria as radio transmitters. Cheap, resilient, and with a range of up to 8 kilometers (5 miles), these devices are allowing Syrians to communicate outside of areas controlled by the Assad regime or the so-called Islamic State (IS).
As reported by BBC News, these radios – known as Pocket FMs – were designed with crisis regions in mind, particularly those that do not have reliable access to the Internet, mobile phone networks, television or even any electricity. Whenever the easily-programmable computer is plugged into an antenna, power supply, headphone jack or a USB, it begins transmitting and receiving radio broadcasts.
It has a powerful enough range to cover signals being transmitted across an entire town or small city. Including casing, the device is the size of a shoebox, making it easy to transport even in difficult conditions. It can be solar powered, but it also plugs into car batteries, wall sockets or any sort of power generator.
Two dozen Pocket FMs have been built so far by the Berlin-based non-government organization Media in Cooperation and Transition (MiCT). They receive one or several transmissions from up to nine regional stations in a network named Syrnet, which is converted to be broadcasted on an FM frequency so that people with ordinary radios can listen in.
The network radio stations are run by a team of MiCT journalists, many of whom are Syrian. These radio stations, free from government or extremist propaganda, can use the Pocket FMs up and down the country to convey information on conflict developments, aid package drops, and other potentially life-saving information with relatively low power.
The device itself is relatively incognito. It’s portable, concealable and, in case it falls into the wrong hands, there is a pinlock that only allows transmission when the correct code is provided. As a result, it can be used in regions that are within walking distance of dangerous factions.
One of the stations, Welat FM, is broadcasting independent radio just a stone’s throw away from a Syrian government-controlled military airport. Hara FM, based in Turkey, broadcasts across the volatile northern border to Aleppo, the largest city in Syria and one currently under the control of various rebel groups.
However, as this initiative aims to support an incredibly risky concept in the region – freedom of expression – the broadcasters running the stations and those moving the devices around Syria are as unprotected as they’ve always been from hostile groups. Marwa, a journalist at Hara FM, told BBC News that she worries about the network’s contributors based in Aleppo.
“At the moment our journalists are safe with the opposition, but it's still a war zone with gunfire and shelling,” she said. “For any journalist, telling the truth puts them in danger.”