Checkered media reform in Algeria
Algiers - As soon as he rose to prominence in 1999, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced he would liberalise the media. This sector is viewed as very sensitive and highly strategic. The government’s image largely depends on the media because of a revolution in communications and media outlets.
Bouteflika in April 2011 announced a series of measures to liberalise various institutions. In January 2012, the National Assembly passed the Code national de l’information (CNI), which was supposed to replace the 1990 restrictive media law. The government considered the new measure a major step in advancing freedom of expression and speech in Algeria.
The long-awaited audiovisual bill has allowed for private broadcasting in a confusing manner. The legislation is hybrid, ambiguous. TV channels have to lease transponder space from regional satellite operators in Amman or Beirut. While their offices are in Algiers, they have to broadcast from abroad.
Despite restrictions, TV stations have flourished overnight with more than 40 private channels. Only five channels have official accreditation.
Private channels have rapidly succeeded in competing with state stations but they can be shut down any time. This was the case for El Watan TV most recently and Atlas TV during the 2014 presidential election campaign
The Algerian print media is well-known in the MENA region for being one of the most outspoken against the government. There are more than 80 daily newspapers, some of which do not leave the printing house. The newspapers with the largest circulation are Ennahar (600,000), Echourouk (500,000) and El Khabar (400,000), all published in Arabic. In French, there is El Watan (200,000), which is seen as the elite tabloid. The government owns four newspapers with low circulation.
In total, around 2 million tabloid newspapers are sold every day. The print media can also be read online. Algerians do not read books very much but do read newspapers and watch TV news programmes. However, media restrictions and constraints are many.
The print media, which have been pluralistic in principle since the 1990s, continue to suffer from monopolistic practices. The government is in charge of printing and distributing newspapers across the country. El Watan and El Khabar are the only newspapers that have invested in printing and distribution equipment to be independent from state pressures.
Articles 2 and 92 of the 2012 law make it practically impossible to cover any social, economic or political issue without risking retaliation, even though censorship, as such, does not exist in the texts.
The gathering of information is an activity “freely exercised”. However, there are 12 catch-all conditions that should be respected, including national identity, defence and external issues, symbols of state and Muslim values. These restrictions also apply to the electronic media (Article 71).
The most crucial issue remains the official approval to set up a newspaper. It’s an uphill battle that must be undertaken in the maze of bureaucracy. It often takes several years and a lot of luck.
Advertising is the sword of Damocles over the head of the print media and is the most efficient tool used to pressure Algerian media. State advertising is a major source of funding for the print media and television. Over the past years, state pressures have been exerted on newspapers that were critical on Bouteflika, his family and allies.
As a positive measure, the new bill abolishes prison sentences for media offences. This should have ended the threat to journalists stipulated in the criminal code. Fines should be paid instead of imprisonment. The fines are however disproportionate in regard to media budgets. Realpolitik therefore imposes self-censorship instead of bankruptcy. There is no journalist who wishes the closure of a newspaper. The criminal bill however maintains prison sentences for defaming individuals.
Media liberalisation has not consolidated the freedom of tone and speech. On the contrary, the new bill tends to lock the media space by changing the operating mode and the format. The security logic continues to prevail in a regionally difficult context.