Algerian media - between diversity and censorship



 
On the eve of the April 9 Algerian presidential elections MENASSAT offers this reading of Algeria's media landscape as seen through both political and historical lenses.
 
By MAHDI IDAR
 
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Algerian woman passing campaign posters in Algiers. © AP

ALGIERS, March 31, 2009 (MENASSAT) – Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika launched his official campaign last week ahead of April 9 elections, and while it is expected to be a no-contest election, there is scant evidence of critical local media that is not in some way hampered by current government policies.

Critics of the regime question the idea of an election occurring in a media atmosphere that has traditionally been used to bolster a positive image of the state.

Past history

Algeria's media sector has undergone significant changes since its independence in 1962, but up until 1989, one party dominated Algeria's     political reality, the National Liberation Front (FLN).

In effect the FLN controlled the media and political landscape until mass popular protests in 1988 against the FLN forced former president Al-Shadli bin Jdid to ratify the constitution in 1989, paving the way for the rise of religious political parties like the FLN's main rival, the Islamic Salvation Front.

Political pressure was also put on the government to open up press freedoms. New press laws like 07/90 were passed in 1990, and new dailies sprung up to fill the void that had been taken up by pro-FLN newspapers.

Before 1990, there were six dailies in Algeria, four Arabic speaking: Al-Shaab (The People), Al-Nasr (Victory), Al-Joumhouriah (The Republic) and Al-Massa’ (The Evening); two French, Al-Moujahed (The Struggler) and Horizon, funded by the government.

After 07/90, French-speaking el-Watan (the nation) was established (www.elwatan.com) as was Arabic –speaking journal el-Khabar (the news) (www.elkhabar.com) – both independently financed papers quickly gained popularity for their impartial reporting of domestic events.

The honeymoon period didn't last long:

The Islamic Salvation Front won the first round of the country's first multi-party elections, and in early 1992, Algeria's military canceled the second round.

The new junta forced then president Bin Jdid out of office, and declared a “state of emergency” - suspending the constitution and outlawing all religiously affiliated political parties, like the ISF.

In 1992, the ISF took up arms to attempt to enforce their election win, beginning the 10-year Algerian Civil War that killed more than 160,000 people between 1992 and 2002.

The war polarized the country into two main camps aligned with the oppressive policies of the western-leaning military junta or the Arab and Islamic influenced parties fighting for power.

The war also forced Algeria's media into pro or anti-government camps.

Under the declared state of emergency, newspapers criticizing the regime were closed by the military junta, mainly to relay a positive image to the international community and domestically, to suppress any dissent.

Algerian journalists were particularly vulnerable during the civil war. Hundreds of journalists were victimized physically and professionally; some 77 journalists and media assistants were killed in Algeria between 1993 and 1996.  

New media landscape...again

After the end of fighting in 2002, president Abdelaziz Bouteflika once again allowed private media institutions to enter the media sector, with limited press freedoms given Algeria was still considered in a state of emergency.

Issues of financial sustainability for the independent press quickly forced Algerian media owners to rely on advertisements to remain financially viable.

Ad space was paid for by a diverse group of public and private interests, including Islamic parties, and for a two-year period, Algeria appeared to experience a new media renaissance.

This also meant more dissenting voices in Algerian media, critical of the policies of president Bouteflika, particularly in the newspaper industry.

In May 2004, the government passed a law that forced public and private media to pass their advertisements by a regulatory body - the Publicity Agency - before publishing.

The arbitrary rules set up to regulate the ads severely curtailed the income of several independent and state-funded papers, forcing many to shut down.

From 1989 to 2004, press laws did little to affect Algeria's audiovisual media landscape because the industry was traditionally in the hands of the leading pro-government interests.

Now as president Bouteflika vies for a third presidential term, the issue of government control of the media is a top concern for domestic and international rights groups pressing for more deregulation of the media.

Indeed, the Algerian government strictly regulates audiovisual content under harsh press laws that are intolerant to criticism of president Bouteflika's regime – fostering the same one party domination that occurred between 1962 and 1989, rights groups say.

Press freedoms groups also accuse the state-run Algerian Press Agency (www.aps.dz) of similar one-party editorial policies.

The real victims

Journalists have been the most most affected by Algeria's media policies.

Beginning in 1992 when a state of emergency was declared and leading up to the modified Penal Code of July 2001 that define the "ethical" guidelines for journalists’ work, the penalties levied against Algerian journalists have been severe when dissenting with government policies.

Press misdemeanors, especially defamation against the president and the officials, have  led to hefty jail sentences and monetary fines.

Press rights groups like Reporters Without Borders (RSF) note that there are few redlines that the government has drawn to distinguish what is and what is not acceptable for reporters to cover.

According to RSF, government harassment in the workplace is common practice.

Further, reporters in Algeria barely make a living wage. Few make more than $300 dollars per month, and reporters are finding it increasingly difficult to continue their work without moonlighting for government media jobs.

Algerians  look elsewhere

What is clear in the last days before the 2009 presidential elections is that Algerians are increasingly looking elsewhere for news about their own political developments.

Increasingly viewers are turning to international and Arab satellites given the lack of Algerian TV channels www.entv.dz, and Algerian online news consumers have practically abandoned Algerian official media.

Two new TV channels were recently launched, one concerned with Quranic issues and the second targeting Algeria's Amazigh population - channels that look to be appeasing interests groups in Algeria as a means of political cover for the government.

Meanwhile, the Algerian government and pro-government media outlets have already taken their fight to the the internet, through a proliferation of news and current affairs websites - in both French and Arabic.

News sites like www.tsa-algerie.com are currently competing with the most popular Algerian newspaper sites for audience share.

It is worth noting that Reporters without Borders ranked Algeria as the 121 country out of 173 countries on the Press Freedom Scale.