Algeria: Private TV stations alter the electoral scene

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Algerian supporters of a movement called Barakat (meaning in Arabic "That's enough"), campaigning for new leadership in Algeria, demonstrate holding banners and shout slogans against Algeria's current President Bouteflika Abdelaziz running for a fourth term in the April 17 elections, outside the central school in downtown Algiers on March 27, 2014. (Photo: AFP-Farouk Batiche)

Published Friday, March 28, 2014

As the Algerian presidential elections approach, TV channels have entered the fray. Supporters of each candidate seek to influence public opinion. Some have even launched new TV channels to support one candidate at the expense of another.

Algeria: Ad campaigns for the presidential elections in Algeria began on March 23 in a frenzied atmosphere whereby the opposition has been silenced. In the past few days, human rights organizations recorded numerous violations of freedom of expression such as crackdowns on protesters in the streets and censoring private opposition media outlets. The authorities shut down Al-Atlas TV channel after confiscating its technical equipment and closing its headquarters. They also scaled down some newspaper ads claiming that they are “foreign agents trying to create chaos and drag the country into dire consequences.”

The same arguments appeared in Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's letter on National Martyr’s Day in which he accused the press of “abusing the freedom of expression.” He said: “There are private motives hiding behind the calls for freedom of expression that have malicious goals meant to undermine national defense and security.” That is how the president monopolized the media landscape, especially with the launching of satellite channels such as Président and Wiam to support his fourth term in office and promote his political projects.

Before discussing the media battle that has recently emerged, it is necessary to point out that the Algerian media is divided into private and state-run outlets. The latter is governed by the will of the authorities who are only interested in having the media mirror their interests. The reality renders claims of opening up state-run media to differing opinions mere empty rhetoric for popular consumption.

Private media deals differently with the candidates. The independent channels (there are over 10 of them) have demonstrated interest in the most prominent candidates, Bouteflika and Ali Benflis. But they have shown less interest in the activities of the other four candidates Louisa Hanoune, Moussa Touati, Ali Fouzi Rebaine and Belaid Abdelaziz. Ultimately, some channels chose to be a mouthpiece for the authorities, others decided to support one of Bouteflika’s rivals, while others are trying to treat all the candidates equally for the sake of ad revenues and official announcements.

The initial manifestation of the media war between Bouteflika and his adversaries confirms that private media outlets have no choice but to cheer for the authorities who insist on keeping the current president. Even the ones that pretend to be neutral are not able to get rid of the fear of being shut down and confiscated in a way similar to what happened with Al-Atlas Channel. In some cases, a candidate embarks on establishing his own channel to promote his electoral project like Benflis, who opened Espoir channel.

In this context, Mohammed bin Abdallah, an observer of cultural and political affairs, told Al-Akhbar that the way Algerian channels deal with political issues in general and electoral issues in particular does not “rise to the level of the required professionalism.” He added: “Our channels always bless and celebrate what the authorities do, and don’t even bother to check information.” He argued that all the channels “serve the authorities one way or another and promote their views because of the government’s monopoly on audiovisual media that still needs a law to regulate it,” emphasizing that all Algerian TV channels operate “outside the law.” Abdallah continued: “The margin of freedom of opinion here is still small and monopolized by influential parties that do not allow the broadcast of information that does not serve their vision and political interests. That is why our channels were silent about Bouteflika’s candidacy even though he is violating the law and is unable to play the role of president.”

It is necessary to also talk about the state-run channel, Algerian TV, and the accusation that it is partial towards Bouteflika. Benflis supporters issued a statement in which they condemned the “unprofessional practices of the government agency and the blatant violation of the basic rules of ethics and public service incumbent on media institutions.” The statement pointed to the negative consequences that could result from this “scandalous bias,” especially for the credibility and progress of the presidential elections scheduled for April 17. In light of the state-run TV’s blatant bias in favor of Bouteflika, some praise what the Algerian satellite channels are doing given that their experience is still young.

That is the opinion of journalist Rida Channouf at the Algerian daily Al-Khabar, which he expressed to Al-Akhbar. He pointed out that these elections are “taking place under a new reality, namely that private channels exist for the first time in the history of presidential elections in Algeria.” He reminded us that “these channels are only a year and a half old.” As such, serious media coverage of presidential elections - except for the state-run TV - embodies “a new experience in media.”

In some cases, coverage by these channels of Bouteflika’s candidacy, or the electoral campaigns supporting him by a group of political figures (all of them either occupy or have occupied important positions and responsibilities in the state), amount to “direct support” by some channels. Others try to keep a balance in an attempt to be somewhat neutral by giving space to Bouteflika’s supporters and his opponents too. Channouf pointed out as well that there are channels that were established specifically to support the current president in the presidential elections.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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