'Every Tuesday is court day'

A focus on local news might be the secret behind the success of Algeria's El-Khabar newspaper, which claims a circulation of 550,000 copies daily. At the same time, it does not shy away from reporting on abuse of power or corruption scandals. APN spoke with El-Khabar's news editor Daamache Abdelhafid.

Printed in tabloid format, El-Khabar was established in 1990 by a group of editors and journalists from the state-run press. Today, the paper employs a staff of 300, including 50 journalists and 50 correspondents based all over Algeria. El-Khabar boasts a circulation of 550,000 copies a day, "the highest in the Arab world, if we exclude the government-run newspapers," according to Daamache Abdelhafid, the paper's news desk editor.

APN: How do you account for El Khabar's success?

Daamache Abdelhafid:
"I think it goes back to our focus on issues that affect our readers. The paper's success can largely be attributed to the section "al jazair al amika" (Inside Algeria), where you can find news on the tiniest, most remote little villages. We have correspondents in each of Algeria's 48 wilayas (regional communities). We even follow what the smallest sports teams in the farthest outreaches of the country are doing. And we offer three regional editions: central, west and east."

APN: What are the greatest challenges you face?

D.A.: "
One of the main obstacles we face is in access to information. On another level entirely is the issue of lack of training among our journalists. Not all of our correspondents have gone to journalism school, which makes the revision process that much more difficult for our editorial staff who must edit the articles before they are published."

APN: How do you see the situation of freedom of expression in Algeria today?

D.A.: "
Freedom of expression in Algeria has deteriorated since President Bouteflika came to power in 1999. In addition to that, it's no longer clear which subjects are taboo and which aren't. The lines are blurred. The media can run stories on the most daring subjects – the army, the justice system, the head of state – but a topic you would never imagine as being sensitive or awkward can turn out to be problematic. Take the case of Ali Dilem, the political cartoonist known for his very blunt style, which is typical in this regard. Often, it's not his most bold cartoons that get him hauled into court."

APN: What change do you see as necessary in the laws governing the media?

"The priority would be to eliminate prison sentences for journalists. As it stands now, a journalist's writing falls under the criminal code, just like a criminal offense. It isn't right for a journalist to be sent behind bars for an article. No journalist has ever been thrown in jail over a press code violation but this clause acts as a sort of sword of Damocles that hangs over the profession.

"Tuesdays have become notorious here as the day when journalists are handed their suspended sentences in hearing room number four at the Algiers court. These rulings have become almost customary and often the summonses are just a formality and there is no legal action. Our newspaper, for example, has about ten cases before the court at the moment, meaning that every Tuesday our management must appear before the judge. To give you an example of a case: one of our journalists who wrote an article about a prisoner who was forgotten in solitary confinement was recently handed a two-month suspended sentence.

"At the same time, you have to acknowledge that this situation does as much good as bad for the profession, since it forces journalists to check their sources more rigorously and be more careful about the information they put out."

This article was republished with permission from The Arab Press Network, a web portal by the World Association of Newspapers (WAN).