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Gramafoon Radio shuts down amid fears of legislative crackdown

Gramafoon Radio announced that it will shut down its online stream on May 5, which marks the radio’s fourth anniversary, due to financial and legal restrictions, the radio’s management said in a statement Saturday.

Using the slogan of “We play the forgotten,” Gramafoon is an online community radio platform that aims to disseminate Egypt’s archival music recordings to the public.

The closure, according to the radio’s founder Ahmed Kamal, is more of a temporary break rather than a final shut down, at least until a committee tasked with drafting a law governing the formation of National Media Authority (NMA) completes its work.

The NMA is supposed to replace Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU), which exclusively governs the rights of radio and television broadcasts. Kamal refers to Article 16 of a draft law currently released by a legal committee on the powers of NMA, which limit the extent to which online radio stations can broadcast.

In a leaked copy of the draft, Article 16 bans the use of any tool or technology for the purpose of live public broadcasts through internet or satellite for any event inside Egypt without permission from the NMA itself. The article also bans the broadcast of any material owned by the NMA in public space, residential areas or public transportation. The draft law imposes financial fines on whoever violates these restrictions.

“The interpretation of this article is extremely wide, and targets all institutions from the biggest online radio channel to the smallest YouTube channel,” Kamal explained to Mada Masr.

Before the release of this draft, Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb declared on March 22 that a state-owned company would be established to manage the sale and permits of radio frequencies. The step was hailed by Kamal back then as an opportunity to register Gramafoon as a radio channel by acquiring a radio frequency on FM waves.

But another move by the government crushed Kamal’s hopes.

On April 5, 2015, director of the Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies Ahmed Sameeh was arrested. The rights organization ran the country’s leading online station “Radio Horeytna.”

According to his lawyers, Sameeh was charged with possession of a pirated version of Windows, in addition to publishing news on the internet without a license, a violation of Article 10 of the Communication Law of 2003. He was later released on LE5,000 bail.

Back then, Gramafoon showed solidarity with Sameeh, saying that there are no licenses for online radio in Egypt. Yet, Sameeh’s arrest sent a clear message that a crackdown was underway.

For Kamal, the closure is a good chance to shed the light on the draft law and the loopholes that could be used to target online radios in Egypt. Following the declaration, hundreds of Gramafoon fans expressed their discontent over the draft law, which is an important step for Kamal.

“We cannot say that the government actually shut down Gramafoon, but there is anticipation of its targeting through this law and other laws related to terrorism and foreign funding. We could be easily targeted by any of these,” he explained.

Although Gramafoon is a cultural project aimed at preserving and disseminating Egypt’s musical heritage, and has no direct relationship to political matters, Kamal believes that Gramafoon poses two major threats: “Gramafoon is doing what Maspero is not doing, which is an embarrassment to those running it,” he said, adding that community radios challenge state control over sound archives.

Gramafoon is not just an online radio channel, but also a project that enjoys a large and loyal audience, he says, which could also pose a serious threat to those in power. “It is this loyalty of the audience that made the discussion around the draft law very intense, which is a threat to those drafting it,” he explained.

Kamal pointed out that the radio station is also facing financial issues, which pushed management to actually shut down operations for a month in January. Although they resumed in February with hopes of finding alternative means of funding the project, all hopes were stalled with the release of the new draft law.

In a talk organized by Mada Masr at “The Stories of Sound” event in May last year,  Kamal explained that there is a long-forgotten history of community radios in Egypt. While 1934 witnessed the official start of Egyptian radio, there is a concealed history of community radios with limited ranges and audiences.

State intervention in community-based radio channels started when the British Marconi Company became the official radio network provider. When Marconi’s contract ended in 1940s, more state intervention was exercised, till further restrictions were imposed following the 1952 revolution, when most pre-revolution recordings were banned or altered. In 1958, former President Gamal Abdel Nasser named the radio a legal personality and transmission devices were banned.

“They were so crazy over radio, that they named it a government employee,” Kamal said during the talk.

Foreseeing similar state interference, Kamal is thinking of another path of resistance, this time with the help of digital tools.

“We are putting our archives online using torrents, so that everyone can access them. We need to have dozens of other online radios to create a new reality. The more we are, the less the state can exercise its control over the waves,” he concluded.