Subterfuge or end clap for the French-language daily El Watan?

Unable to pay its employees since March, the French-speaking daily El Watansymbol of the private press born in the 1990s, finds itself with phenomenal debts and does not may no longer pay its employees. The latter, since July 12, in the whirlwind of a repeated strike started last Sunday, yet another strike which calls for another, unlimited this one and which could very well sound the death knell for this publication reputed to be the flagship of journalism in Algeria.

The employees are in conflict with some 18 shareholders, guilty in their eyes of ” mismanagement ” and having swallowed all the dividends, during a period when the newspaper was abundantly served in state advertising, without any sharing.

It was in 2014 that the setbacks began for El Watan, when the clan of the then president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, did not appreciate the positions of the duck against a fourth term of the head of state, him offering after his re-election the boon of well and truly taking revenge.

Suddenly, the newspaper saw institutional advertising disappear, while private advertisers, out of prudence or under pressure from the regime, took to their heels. As a result, readership has eroded considerably over the years, despite the fact thatEl Watan has been since its creation considered as a “reference newspaper in Algeria”.

When President Bouteflika fell in 2019, the duck took on a few + feathers + from the beast, with the restoration of Dame Pub, but the old demons resurfaced when El Watan attacked the children of the former army chief, the General Ahmed Gaïd Salah in August 2020 after the publication of an article on the property of the latter accused of corruption.

The newspaper “moving towards permanent closure” recently put forward the director of publication, Mohamed Tahar Messaoudi predicting in fact an end to the clap of the“intellectual adventure”a term used in 1990 to designate the start-up, with state aid, of the private press in Algeria.

Three months after billionaire Issad Rebrab’s decision to scuttle the newspaper Freedom without the possibility of recovery, it is another flagship title which is threatened with disappearance in Algeria. Launched in 1990 by journalists from the public sector, El Watan experienced a prosperous period which enabled it to invest, in association with the Arabic-language newspaper El Khabarin a printing press.

But, in recent months, his situation has become untenable. His accounts are blocked, the tax authorities claiming 55 million dinars (nearly 370,000 euros) from him in unpaid charges, while the Crédit Populaire d’Algérie demands the recovery of part of a loan of 45 million dinars. Debts largely incurred, according to management, during the period of the Covid-19 pandemic, which “has heavily impacted the financial health of the company”.

That’s not all, a brand new eight-storey building, the newspaper’s headquarters built in the Oasis district, in Hussein-Dey, with a breathtaking view of the bay of Algiers, has remained desperately empty since 2017, the authorities having refused to give a certificate of conformity.

Press in crisis

The difficulties ofEl Watan illustrate the crisis situation of the written press in Algeria, whose economic model is totally dependent on advertising. A powerful lever in the hands of the authorities, who can thus “regulate” the media without having to resort to suspensions and closures of titles. We can therefore say without being mistaken that the authorities today have the power of life and death over all the media.

In Algeria, with or without circulation, titles survive in the good care of institutional advertising and therefore dependent on the National Publishing and Advertising Agency (ANEP). Advertising resources are estimated at 200 million euros per year. The excesses of such a policy inevitably become legion, and the best illustration of this is the sentencing to a prison term and heavy fines of the former football international, Rabah Madjer, owner of two newspapers which continued to receive advertising checks for a year, when they had ceased to appear.

There is no doubt that the Algerian independent press is facing an existential crisis. Indeed, many titles created when the media landscape was opened up to the private sector in 1990 have been forced to cease publication.

In 2004, the French-language daily “Le Matin” shut down and nearby, last April, a leading independent press, “Liberté”, closed shop for “financial and economic” reasons. Employees of “Liberty” have tried to buy the title from the owner, the wealthy businessman Issad Rebrab in vain. The latter rejected this option for reasons described by some as “political”.

And to say that El Watan and Liberté declared themselves “independent” and “free” to express their opinions. But in reality the first newspaper could not afford to express opinions contrary to the interests of its owner, while the second could no longer formulate thoughts too opposed to the state. In both cases, the freedom of expression disappears and gives free rein to a conditioned and, moreover, very limited freedom.

In an editorial-advocacy, rather of despair or of the domain of the save who can, we will say, jacket returned in support and in the ultimate hope of coaxing the senile of the regime of Algiers, El Watan affirms in the direction of the public authorities, that, if the newspaper were to disappear, “We will open the champagne in Rabat”where we taste little his support for the Sahrawi independence movement of the Polisario Front.

As for the religious fundamentalists, against whom the daily fought during the black decade of the 1990s, they “will toast”. But, “inside” among the 160 employees on strike, the feeling prevails that the 18 shareholders and the authorities are determined to put an end to the “adventure” ‘El Watan.

The only duck that has the right to consider itself free is the one that is recognized as such by free citizens who contribute to its existence through the recognition of the production of said media. The others are just begging.

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