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After a Brief Moment of Hope, Algeria’s Free Press Falls Silent - New Lines Magazine

Journalists Ihsane El Kadi and Said Djaafer, birth of RadioM

Hamdi BaalaHamdi Baala is a journalist and translator based in Algiers June 6, 2023

Here’s a thing about authoritarian regimes. They eat away at our time and energy and alter our priorities when they make journalists and the media become part of the news. I should be writing about climate change right now, about the uncharacteristic heat wave followed by heavy rains and floods hitting northern Algeria this late spring, but I have to write about my imprisoned former boss instead.

“There are moments in history when the people stand up and change their destiny. This is one of those moments,” Ihsane El Kadi, the editorial director of Interface Media, told the conference room crowded with my colleagues — journalists from Radio M, Maghreb Emergent and HuffPost Algeria, the core of Algeria’s online Francophone media world.

That was two days after millions of protesters first burst onto the streets of Algiers in late February 2019, in an attempt to topple the ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a movement that came to be known as the Hirak.

El Kadi had a knack for seeing the possible when others couldn’t. He had built an online media empire of free speech in authoritarian Algeria, when most outlets only regurgitated regime talking points. He could see the possibilities rising like the tide and he wanted both to inspire his journalists and steel us for the months ahead.

He looked out over the conference room. “This moment will also forever change your lives as journalists,” he added, gravely. We nodded dutifully, but we were impatient to get back to the adrenaline rush of the streets, to bear witness as our compatriots reshaped history before our eyes. Anything felt possible. Everything felt possible.

We were about to be changed, but not, perhaps, in the ways we, or El Kadi, expected.

Nowadays, Maurice Audin Square, once the epicenter of the Hirak, hasn’t seen a protest in over a year. The nearby six-story Haussmannian building that used to host our offices has also fallen quiet — as if stuck in a perpetual slow news day. For years, its airy foyer and spiral staircase were abuzz with activity all day long; the comings and goings of journalists on their way to meet sources or file reports. That all ended on Dec. 24, 2022, when security agents arrested El Kadi at his home late at night. The next morning, they seized Radio M’s equipment and sealed the offices.

El Kadi had been one of many journalists held for interrogation several times in recent years as the screws of Algeria’s authoritarian rule tightened.

“We knew it was coming,” my colleague Lynda Abbou, who has worked at Radio M since 2016, told me recently. “What I didn’t expect was shutting the whole company down.”

In April, El Kadi was given a five-year prison sentence for what the verdict described as “receiving money from abroad to accomplish acts that may undermine the security of the state,” based on evidence that he received 25,000 pounds from his daughter, who lives in the U.K. The company was also ordered to shut down.

The international media decried his arrest and the shuttering of Radio M as the “death of the last free media in Algeria,” as its journalists regrouped in a makeshift office at a cafe across the square. El Kadi’s 10-year experiment in independent reporting seemed to be sputtering to its denouement.

The “death of the last free media” makes for a catchy headline, but Radio M wasn’t the only independent outlet. In 1990, after three decades of state monopoly in all media sectors, Algeria introduced a law allowing the creation of private newspapers. Dozens of broadsheets sprung up in short order. El Watan, El Khabar and Liberte stood out: They were the vanguard of independent daily newspapers in the 1990s and 2000s. Reporters took aim at state shortfalls; talented cartoonists became celebrities; and their front pages criticizing presidents or the army top brass still appear in foreign documentaries about Algeria.

By 2011, in the heat of the Arab Spring, the regime saw the impact that imported satellite news, particularly from Al Jazeera, had on public opinion. Not wanting outsiders to control the narrative, the regime opened the way for private local television stations. Private broadcasters emerged, but these freshly launched TV stations faced closer scrutiny from the authorities because of their reach and influence; over time, most of them became slightly more subtle government mouthpieces. Some still strived to be independent or critical at times. Or, at least for a while: Atlas TV, one of the recent upstarts, was shut down by security forces during Bouteflika’s 2014 electoral campaign.

The first time I met El Kadi was in April 2014, in his former office. The veteran journalist who’d made a name for himself as an independent voice during the civil war in the 1990s sat across the table from me and explained his new media project, an Algerian edition of the HuffPost network. It was a gutsy and novel proposition on two fronts. Up until then, online news mostly meant uploading a PDF of a newspaper to a site built for the dial-up age, not web-native platforms with digital radio streams and YouTube channels. Yet, because the new venture was purely digital, El Kadi was betting it could also be more independent than traditional media.

In Algeria, the majority of newspapers’ revenues come from advertisement by public sector companies, and this represents one lever the authorities can use to pressure critical outlets if needed. Unlike private companies, state-owned entities need to go through a public agency that disseminates advertisement pages to newspapers, often not according to readership or distribution numbers but to how loyal that outlet is perceived to be. To discerning readers, one additional page of advertisement, or one page fewer than the previous day’s edition, can signal which way the wind is blowing.

Printing facilities are another such lever. The state owns most of them and the government can simply decide that a newspaper will not be printed if they don’t like something about that day’s edition. El Watan and El Khabar shared ownership of the only private printing press and were able to maintain independence in that regard.

By design, digital-native outlets could escape this printing pressure. And, by law, they weren’t allowed to advertise for state-owned companies. It meant less revenue but the lower costs of operation allowed them more freedom.

More important than advertising or printing overheads, another sea change arrived on the eve of El Kadi’s experiment that made the whole enterprise possible: the advent of 3G internet. Compared to neighboring countries, Algeria was late coming online, with 3G only arriving in 2013 and 4G in 2016 — one reason why the Arab Spring failed to launch in 2011. But, as 3G towers went up around the country, the time was ripe for a digital news revolution.

The year before El Kadi launched HuffPost Algeria, he started Radio M, an online radio station that covered politics, sports and his personal bread-and-butter, economics. Funded by private investors and staffed by top-tier journalists, the stream drew tens of thousands of listeners from across Algeria and abroad, and quickly became the largest and most influential digital media operation in the country. The station was ambitious, touching subjects others saw as taboo or too dangerous. The audience loved it.

“We want you to join us as a journalist,” El Kadi told me, as the city’s landmark monument La Grande Poste loomed in the window behind him. I had just quit my first journalism job at a private TV station when the outlet became a blatant mouthpiece for Bouteflika’s reelection campaign, with management pushing the newsroom to smear opponents. I had little prior experience but I knew El Kadi’s byline and that was enough to know that I couldn’t say no.

We launched HuffPost Algeria in May 2014, just after Bouteflika secured a fourth term as president in a sham election. The man had suffered a stroke a year earlier and was left unable to speak or walk. Confined to a wheelchair and hidden from the public eye, he nevertheless continued to serve as a facade for the regime during the five years that followed. The political class surrounding Bouteflika concerned themselves more with filling their own coffers than governing, a situation that provoked criticism from opposition parties and civil society at the time, but didn’t really translate to protest on the streets. Despite his poor health, Bouteflika’s 15 years in office had been marked by record highs in oil prices, which shielded him from much scrutiny and criticism. He hadn’t run out of political credit yet.

This good fortune shielded us in the media in a way, too — the authorities rarely found it necessary to crack down on freedoms. We were able to do our job more or less unbothered. It never felt like we were living in a democracy, but reality felt suspended: Not too many of our colleagues were in prison, not too many people were jailed because of their opinions.

While this was occasionally punctuated by brutal flashes of reality — in 2016, the journalist and blogger Mohamed Tamalt died in prison while serving two years for “offense to the president” — things were lax enough that El Watan or El Khabar reported on corruption scandals that occurred during the earlier years of the Bouteflika era, including a blockbuster report on the dealings of his energy minister and close ally, Chakib Khelil.

The newsroom at HuffPost Algeria aided in that suspension of reality for me. El Kadi had nurtured an atmosphere that was ambitious but convivial. Seasoned colleagues took us in, shared their contacts and showed us how to sharpen our interviewing, tighten our writing and commit to the work. We learned quickly that our project wasn’t like some government job — you didn’t clock out at 5 p.m. when the work day was over, but instead when the news day was done.

El Kadi treated us as friends, not just employees. When my colleague Lynda got married last summer, he sent one of his camera crews to film the wedding. The bride was thrilled at the idea of having her wedding professionally filmed. It was, but the team never got around to editing the seven-hour footage into a final video, so they kept it on a hard drive at the office. “Authorities seized the hard drives. I have no video of my wedding. Only pictures,” she said as we both laughed. (Here’s another thing about authoritarianism: Don’t procrastinate. And make backup copies.)

Other digital outlets popped up, but most were short-lived, struggling with the funding model or a lack of focus and ambition in the murky news environment of Bouteflika’s later years. Around that time, Said Djaafer, my editor-in-chief at HuffPost Algeria, gave the team an era-defining lesson on how to face the weariness of being a journalist in the surreal political climate of a puppet dictatorship. He took the classic “trains that arrive on time are no news for the media” and flipped it on its head. “No, you should talk about the railway workers who make sure trains do arrive on time, about those who serve and help people,” he said, urging journalists to find meaning because that is what Algerians were looking for under a regime that gave them none.

This was the landscape when the regime announced that Bouteflika would run for a fifth term in February 2019. Within days, it was clear something was brewing. Small, spontaneous protests flared up, angry videos emerged on social media. There were calls to take to the streets on Feb. 22.

I was out that afternoon, just after Friday prayers, when hundreds of people began pouring onto the streets. Soon, they numbered in the thousands. I grabbed my phone and started a Facebook Live stream. More and more people joined, shouting slogans and raising banners, but I was having a hard time concentrating on them as I watched the number of viewers of the livestream creep toward 20,000. The sheer scale of the movement was unimaginable.

I was shaken from that moment when I realized my phone was running out of battery and the protests were only starting. Trying not to panic, I shut down the livestream and switched to taking pictures and notes as well as tweeting.

The protesters surged onward, pressing toward the gates of the presidential palace in Algiers before being beaten back by police in riot gear who pelted them with tear gas. Retracing my path for that day on Google Maps, it tells me that I walked 4 1/2 miles. Back in the office to write my report, I found my colleagues who had walked completely different paths in the city and reported the same huge numbers of people protesting.

Our destiny as Algerians, and as journalists, was about to change. The work seemed exciting again — more than exciting, it became vital.

Demonstrations became a weekly occurrence, and so did walking miles and miles to report on them. Coming back to the office completely soaked by water cannons or losing a shoe in a scramble luckily only happened once or twice. We got swept up in the energy of the movement, and in our work — so much so that when I wondered aloud why I was feeling tired all the time during the early days of the Hirak, a more experienced colleague correctly pointed out that I might be forgetting to eat enough.

As protests went on and events surrounding the movement multiplied — strikes, meetings, political figures taking a stand or switching sides — we were never short of things to cover or work to take on. My older leftist colleagues loved to wheel out the quote often attributed to Lenin, saying “there are decades when nothing happens and there are weeks when decades happen.”

But with the world watching, the “neutrality” that journalism demands became a challenge for me. How do you remain neutral toward demands for freedom, justice and dignity? I still don’t know how to do that, but I made peace with the impossibility of being objective in such circumstances. Instead, I focused on the obligation to at least document all aspects of the unfolding history. It was easy to report on creative slogans, poignant chants and the beautiful scenes on the street. The challenge came when we had to write about uncomfortable truths. A number of journalists, including myself, faced online backlash after talking about dwindling protest numbers, sexual harassment incidents or other problematic aspects of the movement.

The passion was understandable but, on occasion, it translated into mobs booing, expelling and sometimes physically assaulting journalists during protests. Those incidents steeled my resolve to stay on the ground and keep my eyes wide open — for both the movement and my work. A healthy dose of skepticism, even toward the uprising you always thought was the thing your country needed, might well have been part of the change El Kadi thought the Hirak would bring into our lives.

Bouteflika was pushed to resign after a few weeks of intense pressure from the street. For a while, it felt like we were moving in a better direction as a country. El Kadi’s speech from the conference room that day vibrated with the future possibility of the rule of law, checks and balances and better governance; these seemed within reach as the energy from the streets revitalized parties and civil society. Political initiatives and offers poured in from various groups attempting to build momentum and give the movement a game plan. Some wanted a constituent assembly, others suggested a transitional period, but none had the political will or even the knowledge of how to move forward beyond theories and ideas on paper. Meanwhile, the authorities persisted in wanting to hold an election as soon as possible to replace Bouteflika and patch up the civilian facade of the regime. The message was understood by pro-regime media. They had previously covered protests and Hirak-related events, but stopped that coverage altogether shortly after Bouteflika stepped down.

The shift pushed Radio M to intensify its coverage of the movement to fill the gap, earning it the nickname “The voice of the Hirak,” for better or for worse. While newspapers continued their coverage of the movement, Radio M stood out as a rare source for audiovisual content. Foreign media scraped videos from Facebook or interviewed activists on Skype, but Radio M was the nation’s eyes and ears on the ground. Viewership had surged, with 200,000 subscribers on YouTube and 55 million views.

El Kadi encouraged Lynda to launch a new show — a weekly rendezvous where activists and political figures from the Hirak debated and discussed developments. “It was an intense period. Sometimes it feels like we lived an experience that other journalists might not live in 30 years on the job,” she said. That intensity led to blindspots — the team lacked distance at times. “We were so involved that we didn’t deal with some topics as well as we should have,” she admitted. The team’s sympathy for the Hirak created echo chambers: Guests with similar views would be booked for shows and their opinions would go unchallenged.

By early 2020, with a not-so-little push from the army, Algeria had a new president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune. The military leadership, under pressure from the street, had forced Bouteflika to resign, but imposed a presidential election with a clear favorite, contrary to the deeper reforms protesters wanted. Demonstrations continued, although the numbers dwindled, until the COVID-19 pandemic put an end to them.

Meanwhile, the media landscape lacked an outlet specialized in long-form and investigative journalism, similar to the ones in neighboring countries. I had developed a taste for that kind of reporting and it was time to try to fill that gap. Along with other colleagues, I co-founded a new outlet, Twala.

Yet as the pandemic set in, the authorities seized the opportunity to crack down. Dozens of activists were imprisoned and new laws were passed that curbed fundamental freedoms — expression, assembly, safety — across the country. One notable legal change broadened what constitutes “a terrorist act” to include “striving by any means to take power or to change the system of governance by nonconstitutional means.” Critics saw this as a loosely defined addition to retroactively criminalize Hirak activities and any future political initiatives.

As we were preparing to launch Twala, the journalist Khaled Drareni was sentenced to three years in prison for his coverage of the Hirak protests. Previously, journalists had received sentences of a few months; that Drareni was given three years was shocking and signaled a shift. Drareni had hosted a show on Radio M and was the first journalist I knew personally to be jailed. This would change as more and more acquaintances saw the inside of a prison cell. At the time, consciously or otherwise, we felt that every word now needed to be weighed carefully.

The journalists Rabah Kareche from Liberte, Noureddine Nesrouche from El Watan, Mustapha Bendjama and others were also either imprisoned or regularly questioned by police, often because of their reporting on pandemic mismanagement. The television channels El Djazairia and Lina TV were ordered to shut down. Access to many online news websites was either permanently or temporarily blocked, including Twala. The wave seemed unprecedented and, in April 2020, I started an open-ended Twitter thread to track all the cases.

In the meantime, El Watan newspaper faced huge financial pressure. Its journalists went on strike for several months. Ultimately, their readers noticed a shift in tone after they were given a lifeline in the form of public advertising. El Khabar put water in its wine too. Liberte’s owner, a business tycoon, simply shut down the newspaper after serving a prison sentence related to fiscal violations.

The COVID lockdowns and tightening authoritarian grip made for a strange combination. The atmosphere became suffocating. I wrote for Twala, but my relationship with journalism became strained. It was mostly boredom and not fear that made me weary this time. Algeria morphed into a country where the president’s easily disproved claims go unchecked and are plastered on the front pages of complacent newspapers, while independent media face pressure and get shut down. There is little pleasure left in journalism.

There is still adrenaline on occasion, though in a more macabre way. As my colleagues were being imprisoned for their work, every small transgressive post or tweet became a rush. Could I go to jail for publishing a story about the mismanagement of a state-owned company? Who knew — but as I hit send on the tweet I’d soon find out. A friend called this “Algerian roulette.” Sometimes, I craved that rush.

Boredom, on the other hand, made every word seem trivial. And boredom eventually made me leave Twala in 2022.

One more thing about authoritarian regimes. There is this intoxication when you’re living under one and things get tough. Things get blurry, muddled. From afar, it’s easy to perceive a dictatorship clearly. We see excesses in Egypt, Morocco or, more recently, Tunisia, as they are: authoritarian governments using arbitrary methods to silence critics, political opponents and journalists. But when those things happen in your own country, a part of the brain tries to rationalize the events. You wonder if there is some truth to the accusations. You catch yourself entertaining those thoughts and you hate yourself, as the rest of your brain knows for sure that those people are targeted because they dared express an opinion. You even hesitate and almost never call it a “dictatorship” — because, hey, it’s not that bad, not all the time. As if a dictatorship needs to arrest a journalist every single day to earn the name.

We dealt with the first lethargy under Bouteflika by writing about trains that arrive on time, but authoritarianism under Tebboune made the country feel like a broken record. It felt like no matter what happens, uprising or not, things will always go back to square one, sometimes with the added pain of people ending up in prison for their opinions. What use could journalism still claim?

In the meantime, even under pressure from the authorities, Interface Media continued to open its doors to campaigns for the release of imprisoned journalists. And El Kadi continued to do his work as he had always done — until his imprisonment and the shuttering of Radio M, after he published an article questioning the military leadership’s support of a second Tebboune presidential term.

Even after the shutdown, Lynda continues to write for Radio M’s website. “We stopped producing filmed content as our cameras and gear were seized and studios sealed,” she said, “but we continue to do our work in writing. It is legal as the verdict is not final yet. It’s our media outlet, we built it and we are holding on to it.” She hopes the verdict of the appeal, which will be handed down on June 18, will be fairer and El Kadi will be freed soon.

Some journalists took offense at international headlines calling Radio M “the last free media outlet in Algeria” and, to their credit, some continue to try to do their job under great difficulty. But Radio M, through its unflinching attitude and dedication, consistently went further than any other outlet. It pushed the limits of what it was possible for journalists to do under difficult circumstances.

“They were annoying at times,” Yazid, a longtime Radio M listener, told me recently. He said even though he felt they had a blind spot when it came to the Hirak, “they had the merit of giving voice to guests who became unwelcome elsewhere. To continue even after arrests and judicial harassment, including El Kadi’s, was heroic,” he added.

Authoritarianism undermines the very tools by which a government can better understand and govern a society, chief of which is a free press. It feeds the regressive forces within a nation and emboldens them to display and act on their worst instincts. In moments when society is fed up and “stands up to change its destiny,” the chances of its success are slim if a free media is fragile or absent, while regimes can use the reactionary currents as counterrevolutionary fuel. Much like similar movements elsewhere in the region, the Hirak failed because it lacked the political leadership and a civil society strong enough to translate the street uprising into an achievable political project. To learn this, as we witnessed it all unfold and wrote about it for the whole country, did change our lives, although not in the sense to which El Kadi had alluded.

Nonetheless, the Hirak briefly extended the realm of the possible in Algeria. After the Hirak failed, a space like Radio M, annoying as it might have seemed at times, continued to broaden the horizon, at least for journalists, at least for a while. It showed us that it is possible to seek the truth and document and archive the years “where nothing happens.” The task might be boring but it is far from being an exercise in futility. What is it for? For the next moment in history when a society stands up, that it might have a better shot at changing its destiny.


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