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Flag States and Flags of Convenience

A ship may sail in international waters only under the flag of one state and is subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of that state.

This is the reason why almost all shipborne offshore radio stations flew the flag of a country which was nowhere near the area they were broadcasting to or from and they, generally, found a flag state whose rules of inspection were not as rigidly enforced as those of other nations.

These so called Flag States (for example Panama, Honduras or Liberia) operated such lax rules at the time in order to attract to their register as many ships as possible and consequently secure large incomes from the registration fees payable by ship owners. They were prepared to turn a blind eye to many practices which other nations would have found intolerable or unacceptable - comparatively low safety standards, limited and infrequent inspections etc. .

These loose arrangements suited offshore radio operators - their ships did not have to meet high safety requirements or enter port to undergo regular inspections, but at the same time the registration gave them the legal status, and immunity, they required on the high seas to prevent the danger of being boarded by any authorities who wished to silence them.

Offshore broadcasters generally had to ensure that their transmitting equipment was located in the hold of their ships so that, particularly in the case of Panama, they could be legally classed as cargo and not broadcasting  equipment.  

This arrangement generally worked well throughout the history of offshore radio and, with one or two notable exceptions, the ships were not boarded whilst under the 'protection' of their flag state.

The ratification of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) effectively removed the advantages of 'flags of convenience' because the new international agreement meant that flag states which have ratified the Convention agreed to the boarding of ships bearing their registration (even in what were previously known as international waters) if they were suspected of engaging in 'umauthorised' broadcasting.

The  Hold

HOLD Noun - cavity in a ship below deck where cargo is stowed. Also the area used to house transmitters on many radio ships.


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