Creating a modern Arabic press in Algeria



 
After 17 years in the public press, Hadda Hazzam decided to branch out on her own in 2000 and launch an Arabic-language daily in Algeria. Today, she is the only woman to head a private newspaper in the country.
 
APN
 

Al Fadjr ('Dawn') was launched seven years ago on 5 October, a symbolic date in Algeria. What does it represent to you?

 

Hadda Hazzam: 5 October 1988 was the date of the popular uprising which paved the way for a multi-party system, bringing an end to the doctrinaire approach of the FLN (National Liberation Front). The events of 5 October dramatically changed Algeria by allowing political and media plurality. Launching the newspaper on that day was a way of saying that we wanted change, we wanted a free press and we wanted a free market.

 

How do you survive in a country with fifty or so daily newspapers, not counting other periodicals?

 

Over the last three years we've managed to clear a certain amount of profit which is ploughed back into the company in order to improve working conditions. If the newspaper has survived, despite a difficult environment, this is certainly due to the professionalism of its editorial staff.

 

What challenges face Algerian newspapers and yours in particular?

 

The whole newspaper industry, along with other sectors, suffers not only from a lack of professionalism and training but also from a general mediocrity so we have to manage the best we can with the resources at our disposal. As newspapers are a reflection of their society and their economy our expectations should be tempered accordingly. The press fell into many traps in the past, including the defamation trap, and we were unable to set limits or do enough soul-searching. My ambition for Al Fadjr is to make it a better newspaper. I would also like to create a better team of staff which stays with us rather than moving on to other, larger-circulation titles.

 

I am very keen to develop two areas in particular. Firstly, it's vital to increase our rather limited advertising revenue as advertisers still prefer older, more established newspapers with larger circulations; they have made their choice and it's not easy to convince them to trust us. The other aspect concerns distribution, which is run by unofficial companies, making it hard to know our real distribution figures and our true impact because of a complete lack of feedback from the distributors.

 

So about a year ago, I set up a distribution network in the east and south of the country which enabled us to supply five or six more towns in Algeria. I also offer this service to other newspapers and this initiative has begun to bear fruit. In fact, I was forced to depend on my own resources as the distribution business is run by crooks who aren't registered on a trade register and have no license status. Moreover, publishers were unable to agree on how to resolve this problem. We were divided by politics and when it comes down to it, there's no solidarity among newspapers. We had meetings about this in the past but nothing ever came of them.

 

Do you think that the Algerian press is caught between pressure from the authorities and advertisers?

 

Absolutely, we aren't free to write anything we want when we have to depend on certain advertisers. The handling of the Khalifa affair by the independent Algerian press is a good illustration of this. Until the authorities decided to put an end to blatantly fraudulent practices of the Khalifa group (editor's note: a private Algerian group marked by a meteoric success and an equally dramatic decline), the press didn't dare mention certain truths. It was more inclined to attack President Bouteflika than Khalifa because it feared losing the advertising manna which a great number of titles depended on for their survival.

 

I would very much like a debate about the hidden truths of this businessman. He was probably untouchable because he was close to Bouteflika who received him almost every day. If the press had done its job properly this financial scandal would not have happened. As a journalist and newspaper editor, I feel guilty. Many small savers invested all their savings in Khalifa Bank and are now penniless. I believe that I, along with my peers, have some responsibility for their situation.

 

Why did you choose to publish a newspaper in Arabic?

 

In Algeria, the modernist, culturally open spirit is conveyed through the French-language press. With one or two exceptions, Arabic-language titles tend to promote Arab Baathism and Islamism. Algeria has suffered enough from this and I would like to offer a new outlook and new ideas to young people who have been mostly Arabic-speaking since the Arabization of the educational system. Arabic-speaking readers get rather a raw deal. Apart from Al Khabar, a large-circulation Arabic-language title, there isn't a great deal of choice and all the ideas found in the other Arabic-language publications can be considered archaic.

 

According to a recent article in the Courrier de l'Atlas, you consider the environment is hostile to free speech in Algeria.

 

I don't think it's as hostile as all that. There was a positive shift in the early 90's and then the anti-terrorism struggle dampened the

fervour of the press and things took a turn for the worse. As in every country, there are unclear boundaries which we find out to our cost.

 

You yourself spent two weeks in prison.

 

Yes I did, because of a bad cheque, dating from 2003 of which I was totally oblivious because the printing house to whom the cheque was made out never told me about it. I didn't receive any court summons but I know that it wasn't a political affair because the newspaper was never banned. Last year, when I was about to go to Beirut, customs officials informed me that a warrant for my arrest had been issued in May 2006. Following a trial which neither I nor the plaintiff attended, I was apparently sentenced to two years in prison. During the 16 days I spent behind bars I took the opportunity to write a report on life in a women's' prison which we published in Al Fadjr. I experienced my "stay" from a journalist's perspective.

 

You are one of the rare women to head a newspaper in Algeria. Do you encounter any particular obstacles because of this?

 

That's not how I see it. I believe I encounter difficulties linked to the very nature of the Algerian media landscape which both men and women have to face. However, as a woman with family responsibilities, organising my business trips can be problematic and it means that network-building opportunities are more limited. It's true, for instance, that I can't meet influential people (decision makers, industrialists, investors and advertisers) who only go out at night and who indirectly run the newspaper business. It's easier to approach them informally over a drink in a bar but it's difficult for a woman to gain access to this almost exclusively male world. Anyway, I still haven't found a way to enter this influential sphere.

 

Do you have other projects?

 

I'd like to launch a new version of our Internet site which already attracts 12 000 visitors a day and offer a French version of the newspaper online.

 

 

This article was first published on the Arab Press Network (APN), a web portal by the World Association of Newspapers (WAN), on September 5, 2007. Visit APN at http://www.arabpressnetwork.org