by Valentine Pasquesoone
As the Arab Spring rolled across northern Africa, protests demanding greater freedoms popped up across Algeria. While the demonstrations never snowballed into revolution as they did elsewhere, the protesters appear to have achieved at least one small victory: More and better TV. The Algerian government announced that radio and television would no longer be controlled exclusively by the state. For the first time since independence in 1962, private channels will exist side-by-side state run networks. On Sept. 12, Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia stated publicly that the Algerian broadcasting sector would open up to competition.
Unlike the diverse and relatively free press in magazines, newspapers, and on the Internet, broadcast media is restricted by the monopoly of the Entreprise Nationale de Television (ENTV). Improved broadcast freedoms may not be the panacea for all of Algeria’s woes, but it suggests the government fears the protest movement and is beginning to yield to their demands. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s words are revealing when he claims these changes will “boost” democracy. The president is trying desperately to appease the angry, young demonstrators with television.
“When we first saw the government’s propositions last Monday, we were relatively surprised” says Soazig Dollet, head of the Middle East and North Africa desk at Reporters Without Borders (RSF). On Aug. 23, Communication minister Nacer Mehal had made public the pilot study for this media reform. Dollet says the initial text of the study was “disturbing,” with few real reforms. “There were so many restrictions to freedom of expression. State monopoly was being maintained, as well as imprisonment for libel.”
Only a few months ago, Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia claimed Algerian society was not mature enough for media reforms. “Let’s not forget that, upon coming to power, President Bouteflika appointed himself editor-in-chief of the Algerian Press Service (APS),” says Anna Mahjar-Barducci from the Middle East Media Research Institute.
Even if the media is not fully open up, many would consider the government statement alone a step in the right direction. “This announced intention is a progress in itself,” says A. M. Saadoune in Le Quotidien d’Oran. If enforced, the end of state control would allow private radio and television stations to apply for media licenses. A commission would also be responsible of libel cases, a task previously handled by the Ministry of Justice. Most importantly, Algerian journalists would no longer risk imprisonment for press offences like libel, “only” fines whose amount would vary from $680 to $1,360, or the suspension of their publication for “threatening the state security.”
The real question remains: Will it be implemented? As specified by the plan, the creation of a radio or television channel in Algeria would require “a convention signed between the concerned private society and a regulatory authority” as well as “an authorization issued by the authorities.” Only two newspapers, El-Khabar and El-Watan, have already publicly applied for television licenses.
Communication Minister Nacer Mehal claimed on Monday that the first private television channels would be launched in 2012. In Algeria, many media professionals remain suspicious. “We can be pleased about the ideas, but we need acts now. It is not the first time we hear the Algerian cabinet promising a media reform” says Dollet.
The former editor of the newspaper Liberté and founder of the news website Dernières Nouvelles d’Algérie, Farid Alilat, says he will believe in Algeria’s free press only when he sees it. “I don’t think the authorities are ready to open the broadcasting sector.”
The Algerian journalist is understandably skeptical about freedoms in his country. On May 24, 2005, he was sentenced in absentia to one year in prison and fined of 100,000 dinars, about $1,350, for publishing cartoons critical of President Bouteflika and his re-election campaign. Alilat says the new project is merely a “copy-and-paste” from the 1990 Information Code, which promised to open media to private investment. “It just never happened,” says Alilat.
Alilat isn’t quite right. If enacted, the end of imprisonment for journalists would represent a major change. Until this month, Algerian journalists could face up to five-year prison sentences.
Journalists are also raising doubts about the new media regulation authority. The plan is for half of the members to be Algerian journalists, and the other half to be appointed by the President himself and the heads of the two houses of Parliament. “There is still a state control on the media,” says Alilat. “We don’t know how journalists are going to be elected as members of this commission. And there will always be a way for the government to have one or two journalists in its pay.”
The cynicism of journalists in regard to the media law reflects widespread disillusionment with the government and suggests President Bouteflika will have to do more to mollify his critics. For several months now, Algerians have protested the lack of civil liberties, corruption, and unemployment. In response, in February, President Bouteflika lifted the state of emergency for the first time since 1992. He also announced a series of reforms in a national address in April, including a promise for free elections under international scrutiny, a revised constitution, and a new information law. Broadcast media reforms are part of this political strategy. Mahjar-Barducci says they are “nothing more than an attempt by the government to throw the public a bone and avert an uprising in the country.”.
The Algerian authorities are “afraid” of a free press, says Alilat. The decision to open the broadcasting sector, he says, is part of a strategy to placate the rising unrest. “In twelve years, Bouteflika’s government has refused any liberalization. Why does it happen now? Because the government is being contested,” he says. Sure, the protesters have won more television channels, but they’ve also received a signal that the government fears them, which will only encourage demonstrations. If the protest movement succeeds, this revolution will be televised.
Valentine Pasquesoone is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
[Photo courtesy of normalityrelief]