Leading Algerian newspaper fighting for its life
ALGIERS - Activists from Algerian political groups, led by the country’s independence war icon Zohra Drif Bitat, rallied on May 11th in front of Bir Mourad Rais court in Algiers in support of leading daily newspaper El Khabar.
El Khabar is fighting for survival as it seeks to roll back in court a government decision to block its sale to Algerian tycoon Issad Rebrab.
El Khabar editors and rights activists allege the government frightened away advertisers from the newspaper to punish it for its independent editorial line, pushing it to the brink of bankruptcy. The daily turned to Rebrab, considered among the few businessmen voicing critical views of government policies.
Rebrab is locked in a business and political rivalry with businessman Ali Haddad, who is close to the presidency and who owns two newspapers. Both men come from the restive Kabylie region, a stronghold for opposition groups in Algeria.
The matter became a rallying cry for the Moroccan opposition and rights activists, who argue the government aims to financially strangle independent media to silence dissent as it prepares to replace ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
Government backers say the move is part of the government’s role to prevent a monopoly and the collusion between big money and the media.
“The sale of the newspaper is crucial for the survival of the newspaper, which struggled to protect its independence, paying a heavy price at the hands of the government. The paper has been at loggerheads with the authorities because of its independence,” said Mohamed Said, a former minister of Communications.
“Undermining press freedom under any pretext will damage the country’s democratic process,” he added.
Said said Rebrab has been “targeted by the authorities because of his views”.
“Even if the case were to be a purely commercial matter, the political circumstances in Algeria, where [there is] mistrust between the authorities and political opposition, make the matter a subject of the political struggle and about the direction of the country,” he added.
Saad Okba, one of the leading writers for El Khabar, argued that government officials overseeing the media should face trial for their role in pushing El Khabar to be sold.
“The Communications Ministry blocked private advertising to El Khabar by threatening heavy taxation against private firms for dealing with the newspaper,” he wrote.
“Two years ago when the newspaper was in a good financial health, Rebrab and other businessmen offered high prices to acquire the daily. Now, as a result of the ministry’s starvation policy, Rebrab got it with less than half the price he had proposed in the past.”
El Khabar was set up by 18 journalists when a 1990 bill liberalised print media. The government of Mouloud Hamrouche assisted journalists in setting up newspapers, as Algeria emerged from a single-party political system.
More than 20 daily tabloids quickly emerged. El Khabar — Arabic for “the news” — reached a circulation of 1 million, one of the highest among newspapers in the Arab world.
The parent group includes El Khabar newspaper, television channel KBC and five printing houses co-owned with the El Watan group. Algeria’s other newspapers, about 140 titles, publish in state-owned printing houses.
During the 2014 presidential campaign, El Khabar and El Watan were not allowed to benefit from public agency advertising revenues. Since then the government has put more pressure on private firms not to advertise in El Khabar and El Watan.
El Khabar media group revenues rapidly started to shrink. However, it is the television channel that is the main cause of the financial troubles. The newspaper still has a circulation of 400,000.
The court postponed the case to May 25th.