Maghreb print media imperiled
Tunis - When Tunisia’s privately owned daily newspaper Ettounissia stopped printing on May 15th, it highlighted the perils facing print media in the country and the Maghreb region.
The problems confronting newspapers in North Africa are not much different from those of other regional and international print media. Such problems were best illustrated by the decision of Britain’s the Independent newspaper in March to keep only its online edition going.
Print newspapers in the Maghreb have been struggling to survive during the last five years as political and economic liberalisation loosened state grip on media but left print publications without adequate resources to adapt to competition from other media, especially online offerings.
Algeria’s independent daily el Khabar embodies the trend and predicament of print newspapers in the region.
In the 1980s, reform-minded Algerian prime minister Mouloud Hamrouche saw independent media as a way to help Algeria move from a rigid single party rule to a vibrant multiparty system.
Under his watch, newspapers such as el Khabar received state subsidies. El Khabar printed 1 million copies in the 1990s. However, it fell on hard times in the last five years and circulation shrank.
Algerian tycoon Issad Rebrab once approached its owners — independent journalists — in an attempt to acquire the newspaper for about $2.2 million. He ended up buying it in May for less than one-third of that initial offer as the newspaper faced the thorny choice of falling to private ownership or folding as advertising shrank and online offerings squeezed its readership.
El Khabar was thrown into a political and judicial limbo as the government chose to fight Rebrab in court to scrap the sale, arguing it was a threat to media freedom and diversity of opinion because the tycoon already owned newspaper Liberté.
Rebrab said he bought el Khabar to save it from bankruptcy and support press freedom out of concern for the future of democracy and pluralism in Algeria.
In Morocco, which was a pioneer in media pluralism in the region, about ten newspapers, including Nichane and L’Hebdomadaire, folded or fell to the ownership of businessmen eager to enhance their influence in the kingdom.
Their founders — mostly independent journalists — turned to online publications or went abroad for work.
Commenting on the shift in the print landscape in Morocco, journalist Abdelkarim Saoura said: “At a time when the grip of the government is loosening to face feisty and ferociously independent newspapers, the genius of the state discovered a tool to kill off these independent outlets: Opening that market for anyone willing to publish gutter press.
“That provided a great service to the state when it was too weak to fight back against independent newspapers,” he added.
Rachid Afif, another independent journalist, said: “The number of print newspapers was higher in the past than now for several reasons; one of which is the current competition of online outlets.”
He cited other factors hobbling the growth of independent print newspapers, including a crisis of readership — Moroccan publications in French and Arabic share about 300,000 daily readers in a population of about 40 million; lack of sound business models; limited pool of advertising as well as a lack of ethics of competition among newspapers.
In Tunisia, the difficulties facing print newspapers intensified after the ouster of former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the journalists’ union and a publishers’ group said.
The General Union of the Media in Tunisia, an affiliate of the country’s powerful trade union UGTT, called on the government to rescue newspapers before other print dailies shut down.
Under Ben Ali, the government handed out public advertising and bought copies of newspapers in a veiled system of subsidies that shored up certain outlets but not others. The government scrapped those practices after 2011 to steer the media from government control. However, it has hesitated to introduce an alternative subsidy system.
The union described the situation of the print media as “catastrophic”, blaming the government for the “chaos” of the newspaper landscape, including lack of regulation of advertising.
Taieb Zahar, a businessman who shut down the print edition of his Horizons weekly and replaced it with an online edition, is chairman of the Newspapers Publishers Group.
“The government is deliberately willing to let this chaos continue unchecked in the aim of bringing the newspapers to their knees as they have refused to be domesticated anew by the authorities,” he said after Ettounissia stopped printing.