In a Q&A with CPJ, Algerian journalist Lynda Abbou explains why protests that have swept the country in recent weeks were a pivotal moment for journalists frustrated at censorship.
When protests swept Algeria last month over President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s now-abandoned plans to seek a fifth term in office, many of the country’s mainstream television and radio stations were silent. Frustrated by censorship and confronted by protesters demanding to know why the press appeared to be ignoring them, Algerian journalists began staging their own demonstrations.
In a letter to the director of public radio, a group of journalists wrote, “The decision of the hierarchy to ignore the big national protests of [February] is merely the notable hell of the daily exercise of our profession.” Separately, Radio Chaîne 3 editor-in-chief Meriem Abdou resigned, saying in a Facebook post that she “refus[ed] to condone behavior that tramples on the most basic rules of our noble profession.”
Journalists in Algeria already work under restrictive conditions, with authorities issuing directives to news outlets, preventing critical articles from being published, and withholding state advertising, according to Freedom House. The digital rights group NetBlocks has reported evidence of internet blockages amid the recent unrest.
Lynda Abbou, an Algiers-based journalist, told CPJ that the unrest marked a pivotal moment for the Algerian press. Abbou, who hosts the Arabic language news programs “5/5“ and “Offshore“ for the independent online radio outlet Radio M, and writes for the independent news website Maghreb Émergent, said that because Algeria’s main outlets did not cover the demonstrations, citizens started to turn against all members of the press.
The interview was occasionally interrupted by connectivity problems, which Abbou chalked up to authorities blocking the internet ahead of demonstrations the following day.
Algeria’s Ministry of Communications and the state-owned Public Establishment of Television and Algerian Radio did not immediately respond to CPJ’s messages requesting comment.
[This blog has been edited for length and clarity, and Abbou’s responses have been translated from French]
What does press freedom look like in Algeria?
There is, of course, censorship for state media, they’re the voices of the government. They don’t give the floor to opponents, they don’t broadcast social movements, for example the latest events in Algeria. The Algerian readership is also an Arabic readership. So you will find more freedom of expression in the French-speaking privately owned written press. The state censors more Arabic-speaking outlets, because the public speaks Arabic. Plus, two of the biggest privately owned newspapers in Algeria, Liberté and El Watan, have their own printing press. So it’s an asset for them. The others print at the state presses, so if an article or the front page does not please authorities, it will not be printed.
We also have TV channels, which aren’t really privately owned, because they belong to people close to the Algerian government, who gave approval to its friends.
Electronic outlets find a lot more freedom, because often the authorities do not find a censorship method for those websites. There is no printing press, no paper to censor them. [But] electronic websites and web radios don’t have the right to state advertising.
What triggered the journalists’ protests?
The first general demonstration was on February 22. It was huge. And television stations did not transmit the images. Neither the privately owned television channels nor the state television showed signs of life. So when the protesters returned home, they looked for the images, the information. Nothing. They started a campaign against the press on social networks. There was a rupture between the press and the Algerian people. We found ourselves having to explain that the written press spoke about the protests, the electronic press too. When we show up, [protesters] ask us, “Where were you on the 22nd?”
It’s uncomfortable. Last time, a policeman said it to me. I was filming, he was going to take my phone. I told him I am a journalist, and he said “Where were you last time?” It really annoyed me, because I covered all the protests.
The television channels stayed quiet until the day Meriem Abdou decided to resign. Many journalists expressed their exasperation because they felt it was their responsibility to cover the events, but their superiors were not letting them, and the people often insulted and criticized them. Around 150 journalists organized a sit-in. The police repressed the gathering, it was really violent. They arrested people using force, there were journalists who fell to the ground, one journalist lost consciousness. I came to report, but found myself to be in solidarity with my colleagues.
I spoke with lots of journalists there, and they want to report. They said that it’s their bosses that prohibit them from dealing with this subject, so they demanded press freedom and freedom of expression. They were yelling “Down with censorship.”
I know some journalists who refused to byline their articles. It’s a way to resist.
How do the frequent internet shutdowns affect online media coverage?
Since we are a digital outlet, we rely a lot on live broadcasts. And when we’re in the field, we struggle a bit for the broadcasts. Even to load videos and photos, even to put our articles online is a struggle, but we deal with it. These days, it’s always long, it always gets blocked, and often on the day of the demonstration there are internet cuts that last an hour or an hour and a half.
What are your hopes for the future of press freedom in your country?
The issue with the Algerian press is that we have difficulty covering government events. Wherever there are ministers, we often don’t have access. They choose what media and journalists can cover them. It’s the same with the president. We see the opposition every day. We cover them, it’s easy. So if I wish something, I really wish to cover all the activities of the opposition and the state.
People are scared of journalists. It’s impossible to do investigative reporting in Algeria, because people don’t give you information out of fear of legal action.
The electronic press doesn’t even possess press cards. The authorities do not consider us to be journalists. I have a degree in journalism, I have been a journalist for three years. But according to Algerian law, I am not a journalist.
Before being a journalist, I am an Algerian. We really want institutions that are free, independent, democratic–a new constitution, a new democratic political system.