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Protests Loosen Stranglehold on Algerian Media

Protests Loosen Stranglehold on Algerian Media

Wednesday, 17 April, 2019 - 05:30
People protest against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's plan to extend his 20-year rule by seeking a fifth term in April elections, in Algiers downtown, Algeria, March 3, 2019. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
Algiers - Asharq Al-Awsat

Weeks of anti-government protests have helped Algerian journalists shake off the chokehold of state-imposed censorship but their work remains complicated and is often contested by demonstrators.

After the first protests erupted in February, journalists working for state media complained that their bosses had imposed a news blackout on the rallies against Abdelaziz Bouteflika's bid to seek a fifth presidential term.

The protests have since become headline news on both private and public television channels, with live footage of nationwide demonstrations.

On a recent Friday, the main day of protests, however, television crews were shouted down and cursed by demonstrators.

"It reflects the hatred" protesters feel for the main private television channels because they totally ignored the first rallies, Khaled Drareni of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) told Agence France Presse.

The lack of coverage triggered shock in Algeria where private channels are usually quick off the mark and often run live reports.

But they are mostly owned by businessmen close to Bouteflika.

These media outlets "have tried to redeem themselves" by zooming in on the protests, said Drareni, who himself is a journalist, but they also report on alleged "manipulation" of the protest movement.

Over the past week, dozens of journalists employed by state radio and television have staged their own sit-in demanding more freedom.

"There has been change, there are small windows that have opened," said Imene Khemici of EPTV at a protest.

"We now have two specialized programs where we can invite people from different political persuasions, people from the opposition who can speak openly."

Opposition figures and former officials who had been banned for the past quarter of a century are back on the airwaves.

"The most striking thing is how the public media have evolved, especially radio," said Omar Belhouchet, director of the private newspaper El Watan.

As an example, the French-language radio station Chaine 3 now broadcasts live debates several times a week, a feature that was previously banned.

In the late 1980s, Algeria saw the emergence of dozens of privately-owned media outlets but their freedoms were quickly stifled by the outbreak of the country's bloody civil war in 1992.

Several journalists were killed by Islamist groups during the decade of conflict, and the army imposed strict censorship on the media.

Newspapers in Algeria largely depend for their survival on revenues from state-funded advertising.

Private advertising comes mostly from businesses linked to stalwarts of the regime, said media sociologist Redouane Boudjemaa.

The media  "reflect the diversity of the clans within the political system rather than the diversity of the Algerian population", said Boudjemaa.

He cautioned that the changes in Algeria will not necessarily pave the way for greater media independence.

"In some ways we've moved from censorship to disinformation, especially on private channels," he said.

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