Leading Algerian newspaper fighting for its life

Sunday 22/05/2016
Employees of El Khabar group attending protest in front of administrative court

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.