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Internet Radio Powers on After Arab Spring

CAIRO, Apr 14 2012 (IPS) - When an Egyptian court fined former president Hosni Mubarak and two aides a total of 90 million dollars for cutting mobile and Internet services during protests that led to his ouster, it indicated the value placed on communication services in this Arab country.

The 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak in February 2011 was largely organised by groups creatively using social networking websites like Facebook and Internet radio. The fines were handed down three months later.

“In Egypt, if you want to start an ordinary radio station, the government demands a lot of licenses and money,” Youssef Mohamed, campaign and activities coordinator at the Egyptian Democratic Academy (EDA), told IPS. “Mubarak’s National Democratic Party controlled everything, but the Internet offered more freedom.”

EDA, a youth NGO aimed at fostering a culture of political participation, had, by 2009, established its online community-run radio station, Elma7rosa, to disseminate views gathered through community reporting, on subjects like freedom of speech, democracy, tolerance and human rights.

“In terms of Internet radio before the revolution there was Elma7rosa, and also Radio Horytna and Radio Bokra,” said Mohamed. “The relative freedom on the Internet allowed online radio stations to emerge as the voice of a new generation fighting for its place in society.”

Radio Horytna, established in 2007 by a group of young journalists as Egypt’s first Internet radio, was first on the scene during the 18-day revolt, providing uncensored news and taking controversial topics head on.

“We were open 24 hours during the revolution. We set up a tent in Tahrir Square so that those documenting the events could give us material to publish online,” Mostafa Fathi, editor-in-chief of Radio Horytna, told IPS.

“They tried to control our material, but we resisted,” recalls Fathi. “They would threaten us if we published material that wasn’t to their liking and they arrested one of our reporters, Mohammed Al Arabi, while he was covering a protest.”

Fathi said Radio Horytna managed to stay afloat “because we have a lot of partnerships with Egyptian and International non-government organisations (NGOs).”

Since the spring of 2011, the EDA has been expanding its role, conducting audio training to raise awareness on being active citizens and evaluate platforms of election candidates.

Prominent figures at EDA include Esraa Abdel Fattah, 29, who rose to prominence in 2008 as a co-founder of a Facebook group to support industrial workers. EDA’s editor-in-chief, Bassem Samir, is a prominent blogger who faced detention on several occasions.

“EDA’s ‘Political Academy’ is a programme about democracy where we teach the youth how to vote, their rights as citizens, how to be a politician, form a political party or join parliament,” Mohamed told IPS. “Another project that we initiated, ‘Free Egyptian’, offers training to women on how to participate in political life.”

Radio is seen as an important means of fostering community participation. Radio Horytna runs an array of workshops on tolerance between Christians and Muslims.

“We recently started a project called ‘Reporter’ where we gathered ten young people from all over Egypt and taught them how to use the new media tools and how to work as a digital journalist,” adds Fathi.

“Independent media is very important because it gives young people the opportunity to publish, create and broadcast their own programmes. We offer an alternative to traditional outlets like Al Masry Al Youm where it’s very difficult to get published,” Fathi said.

Banat wa Bass (Girls Only), which became the region’s first online radio station catering to the issues of Arab women when it was established in April 2008, now has a fan base of nearly five million listeners across the Arab world.

“On a daily basis, women in Egypt face a lot of harassment, violence and gender inequality,” editor-in-chief of Banat wa Bass, Amani Eltunsi, explained in an interview with IPS.

“Arab media and movies always portray women as being weak and it’s important to counter this by showing the positive side of Arab women, which also empowers us,” Eltunsi said.

“On one occasion, national security wanted to know what we were doing. I told them that I was running an Internet radio station. They didn’t understand so I showed them the website and they told me that I can’t talk about politics, sex or religion,” adds Eltunsi.

“Unlike bloggers whose material is archived online, Internet radio stations have more freedom because the officials can’t access us easily or know who our listeners are,” Eltunsi said.

Last March, Reporters sans Frontières moved Egypt from its ‘Internet enemies’ list to countries ‘under surveillance’ due to the success of the country’s uprisings.

“Before and after the revolution there was a lot of monitoring. The military council investigated us and many lives were lost. We are using our voices for Egypt. This means that we’ll do more and pay more if it means freedom,” adds Mohamed.

Citizen journalists and community media played a leading role in producing and disseminating news during the Arab uprisings as the expansion of digital technology provided innovative ways of expressing freedom.

Well before the wave of pro-democracy uprisings swept the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), Arab activists were harnessing the power of new media to circumvent the stifling of dissent by authoritarian regimes. Within MENA, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates continue to have laws regulating Internet activities.

*This story was produced with the support of UNESCO

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