State radio struggles to find own voice

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By Dina Zayed / Reuters

CAIRO: Despite the bigger margin of freedom facilitated to state radio by the 2011 uprising, especially when discussing previous taboos such as politics, censorship remains an ever present warning, even when it comes to the song selections.

“Soot fel-Zahma” (A Voice in the Crowd), however, presents an example of defiance and rebellious programming, being a live show on Aghany FM and playing material that was formerly lost “in the crowd.”

“Originally, the show was dedicated to the exceptional work made by old (and sometimes unpopular) singers in the 1980s and the 1990s,” said presenter and creator Ahmed Montasser.

“After the revolution, however, we started playing explicitly political songs and hosting their artists live … singers and bands that were altogether radio taboos by themselves.”

Among the bands that Montasser hosted and who have become increasingly popular after the 2011 uprising was Iskanderella, who sang live on air on Jan. 27 as protesters were gathered in a days-long sit-in outside the state radio and TV building, Maspero. On the first anniversary of the uprising that toppled strongman Hosni Mubarak, protesters staged a sit-in outside the building to reiterate ignored demands of purging state-run media.

“When we hosted [Iskanderella], band-member Samia Jaheen surprised us by chanting ‘down, down with military rule’ live on air, as she replaced one of the lines of their song,” he recalled.

But that brief chant did little to change the way Maspero is run, even with Cabinet shuffles that saw the minister of information position temporary removed in the months that followed the 2011 uprising. Comparing former minister Osama Heikal with the incumbent Ahmed Anis, Montasser said that there is almost no difference between them.

“The same censorship policies and instructions are ever present, but we’re trying to overcome this,” he said.

One such example of censorship came two weeks ago, when rumours started circulating that Aghany director, Naglaa Ghannam was under investigation on orders of the minister after one broadcaster played Cairokee’s “Matloob Zaieem” (Leader: Wanted) on March 4.

The song had reportedly outraged of the minister as he was listening, because it contained at the end the words “in short, a male is wanted.” The Arabic lyric features the slang word for male “Dakar,” which Anis deemed as too vulgar to be played on national radio.

Ghannam herself later denied that she was under any investigation, but according to Montasser, whether she was or not, broadcasters have felt the backlash since then.

“After our previous restriction-free period, we started receiving verbal instructions originating from the minister on what to do and whatnot,” he said.

Such instructions included “toning down the criticism … don’t talk politics nor religion … don’t talk about the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF),” among others.

“It’s not like the song wasn’t played before, though,” Montasser added, “It was featured before on [the state-run] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat and the Youth and Sports channels,” hinting that the backlash only came after the minister actually heard it.

Even before this particular incident, Montasser and his former director Khaled Abaza said that although the uprising gave them a previously unseen space for freedom, they were still unable to play some songs, such as Ziyad Rahbani’s “Ana mish Kafir” (I’m Not an Infidel) and others by Sheikh Imam.

He maintained, however, that the show’s producers still try to keep the same spirit of rebelliousness and boldness. On Friday they set the plans to host rebellious singer, Mohamed Mohsen, who specializes in Sheikh Imam and Sayed Darwish songs.

As a sign of relentlessness, Montasser said that he also hoped to host Cairokee themselves in the future, along with Ali El-Haggar, the veteran artist whose later songs that criticised the Mubarak regime were a long-time radio taboo.

“We still remain the only show in Maspero that broadcasts primarily political songs … especially the most recent ones that discuss current events …catering for our listeners and playing what they specifically demand, in spite of officials’ concerns,” said Abaza.

“Soot fel-Zahma” airs on Fridays from 8 to 10 pm on Aghany FM (105.8).



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