Interview with Omar Belhouchet the editor-in-chief of El Watan, one of Algeria's leading French-language dailies, which continues to thrive despite a climate that does not always foster freedom of speech.
El Watan was one of the first independent newspapers to appear on Algerian newsstands at the beginning of the 1990s with the establishment of multipartism. Since its launch editor-in-chief Omar Belhouchet has faced over 50 lawsuits. He even escaped an attempt on his life. Despite intimidations from the authorities, his commitment to defending press freedom has never wavered. It has won him several prizes, including the Golden Pen of Freedom in 1994, awarded annually by the World Association of Newspapers.
Belhouchet was among the prominent editors who attended the roundtable on press freedom in Africa organised on the eve of the World Newspaper Congress held in Cape Town at the beginning of June 2007. APN seized this opportunity to discuss the situation of the press in Algeria today and look back to the Dark Years (années de plomb) the country went through in the nineties. It also gave us a chance to find out more about the future plans of El Watan, one of Algeria's leading French-language newspaper, which employs some three hundred staff, of which around a hundred are journalists.
APN: What is the current situation of the Algerian press?
Omar Belhouchet: The situation was tough and very difficult a few years ago, but is far better today. Over 70 journalists were assassinated between 1993 and 1998. The situation has improved significantly from that point of view. Relations between journalists and the authorities, which were very bad back then, remain difficult. There are regular condemnations, which stem from a persistent desire to stop journalists from doing their job.
APN: What are the controversial issues?
OB: I don't think that there are any controversial issues for newspapers, but whenever we talk about corruption or political crises at the top the authorities are effectively annoyed. They get excited and retaliate by taking financial and commercial measures against weaker newspapers and legally harassing the stronger ones.
APN: What changes need to be made in the Algerian media law?
OB: Press offences need to be decriminalised and in this respect, I was pleased about this morning's comments during the roundtable on press freedom in Africa. The statements were poignant, very serious and very credible. I believe that the Algerian government, as well as all African governments, must be called upon to let journalists do their job and to decriminalize the act of providing information. Newspapers would win in terms of quality and credibility and journalists would be left in peace.
APN: The exile of several writers and the assassination of experienced journalists during the Years of Lead prevented knowledge and experience from being handed down. How have you filled the gap left?
OB: A few years ago our editorial departments were effectively empty. We hired journalists and trained them on the job with the help of Algerian specialists, as well as the assistance of international organisations such as the World Association of Newspapers. We have done extensive training in recent years. And one of my greatest satisfactions is to see a lot of journalists trained on the job becoming true professionals who are demanding and on-the-ball. Many of them did not attend schools of journalism and are now excellent journalists nevertheless.
We continue to train a high number of journalists. This profession is very important for the nascent democracy in our country. And correctly practiced journalism can significantly promote the expression of truth and democracy. For a country like Algeria, which is struggling to emerge from an atrocious war, this is something very precious in my eyes.
APN: It seems that the Algerian press is currently under pressure not only from the government, but from private advertisers as well.
OB: We have effectively entered a new phase with the upsurge of advertising from the Algerian private sector and international firms. But I don't think it is really fair to compare pressures from advertisers and those from the state. That said, it is true that when an advertiser gives you advertising and articles in your newspaper criticise the company's management, the advertiser gets upset. Yet to my knowledge, no advertiser has ever withdrawn its advertising as a result of criticism by any newspaper to date.
APN: Let us come back to the Dark Years. In a recent interview given to AFP you said that the press played a combative role it should not have been alone in playing between 1993 and 1998; and that it was now returning to international standards.
OB: The idea that I wanted to contribute to the debate was that we [the newspapers] were forced to play a role that went beyond that of informing our readers as of 1993 due to the resignation of politicians in my country. Journalists and editors-in-chief became opinion leaders. Undeniably, the conflict between Islam and terrorism is a battle that had to be fought, but we shouldn't have been the only ones fighting it. Due to resignations by politicians and the weakening of the political parties, and the fear of terrorism - because whoever talked was assassinated - a group of journalists found themselves on the centre stage. Now the political and security situation has improved significantly, and I believe that, after practising combative journalism, we need to come back to international standards, namely to inform our readership according to rules of credibility and objectivity.
APN: How is this journalism, which complies more with international standards, reflected in the content of El Watan?
OB: We offer a lot more surveys, reports and special supplements. Of course, there are still pages devoted to politics, but a little more space is also devoted to social issues and business, especially given the exceptional outset seen in the private sector.
APN: You are planning to launch a "Sunday" edition to be published on Friday (which corresponds to the second day of the weekend in Algeria). Can you tell us more about this?
OB: The launch will take place in a few weeks. It is a first in Algeria, where the concept of weekend editions does not exist. Normally we don't publish on Friday. In terms of content, this issue will cover all of Thursday's news and a lot of social surveys, magazine features and cultural news. This edition will naturally be "light" in terms of the topics covered. It will be 32 pages long, just like the weekday issues.
APN: And do you have any other plans?
OB: We have launched three supplements in the past three years: a business supplement (published on Sunday), a real-estate supplement (published on Tuesday) and a television supplement (published on Thursday). Our plan is to launch a fourth supplement on sports. We are presently in a phase of an editorial growth that aims to bring us more into line with the international standards mentioned above: namely to be less "political" and to invest heavily in journalism. The outlook seems fairly interesting.
APN: How have these supplements impacted your advertising revenues?
OB: El Watan attracts a lot of advertising because the newspaper targets the middle classes. That has been our editorial line since day one. It is not a working-class newspaper, although I have nothing against such publications, and the fact that it targets managers, politicians and companies means that all of our advertising is from the private sector, since the state has refused to give us any advertising for the past decade.
APN: El Watan is a real Algerian success story ... but what are the challenges that remain?
OB: To offer our readers a quality newspaper every morning. We currently have a circulation of 160,000 and the higher that figure grows, the greater our responsibility becomes. There is always the credibility of El Watan to be protected, which is something sacred to me.