In his new book, Michael Mewshaw included an interview of Thomas Daughton, the former Deputy Chief of Mission in the American embassy in Algiers. I haven’t read the book yet but, according to Echourouk, it seems that the diplomat lost his… diplomatic manners during this interview. He apparently openly criticised the Algerian state and people, and made sure he didn’t spare anyone. One of his comments, again according to Echourouk, was about the Algerian regime mindset which is still stagnating at the Soviets’ system model level.
I don’t know about this comparison, but the way the Algerian regime manages information looks outdated. I actually question the “management” and “information” association when we talk about Algeria. I am not even sure “information control” would fit. I in fact fail to see any coherence in the different strategies, if any, the Algerian rulers follow for this or that cases. It’s like they act according to what we call in Algerian “ennefha”, without any directing line. And it seems sometimes that they are stuck in the 70s or early 80s when we had a single ruling party and a single source of information (disinformation).
I’ll try to illustrate this through some examples, and if someone understands the logic or detects a strategy then please let me know.
Censorship is one method to control the information the rulers want to show to the public. In the 14th Algiers International Book Fair, Mrs. Khalida Messaoudi’s services decided to ban some of Ibn Taymia’s books. These books, they said, advocated for the fundamentalist ideology, and the minister of culture didn’t want to spread it. Fine, I say. But then why are these books so widely available in all the Algerian bookshops? The “Salafi” books are even a majority among the religious books one can find in Algeria . And two years ago, I found many Salafi and Ibn Taymia’s books on an Algerian airport’s bookshop’s shelf. This actually puzzled me and I thought it was really odd as the bookshop was the only souvenirs shop in the airport, and I expected it to sell only typical Algerian products (books included).
So where is the coherence here? And would it not be smarter and more efficient to allow all these books, and at the same time, encourage or finance authors to write books from other (desired) perspectives?
Another occurrence of censorship took place last year when the ministry of culture (or the police, I don’t know) decided to censor Mehdi ElDjazairi’s book, Poutakhine. The book was considered as insulting to Bouteflika. The problem is that the book was first allowed and given an ISBN number before being banned. The author even organised a dedication session in Algiers, and many bookshops had already the book on their shelves. So all this “allow then ban” operation just proved the authorities’ amateurism, allowed the world to talk about the Algerian regime’s censorship, and offered an advertisement to the book and its author. For some reason, most of the Algerian newspapers either ignored this issue or criticised ElDjazairi and even gave away his real name.
The media are another important tool for communication and information management. Algeria’s situation is somehow confusing: the television and radio channels are state-controlled, but there is no control on the satellite reception as one would find in China or Singapore. The newspapers’ situation is different as there are some state-owned ones with a negligible audience, and many private papers with a bigger readership. Of course, some of these private newspapers are owned by big businessmen (such as Rebrab for Liberte or Haddad for Le Temps d’Algerie) who have ties with the regime, and some other newspapers are said to be linked with the DRS. But many journalists spend a lot of time in justice courts facing defamation accusations. This makes sure most of them never cross the read lines.
But back to my examples’ list, and specifically to the Orphan ENTV, our dear propaganda tool.
I remember in the 90s, the ENTV ignored the terrorists’ activities for a long period until the regime decided it was time to help the Algerians who sympathized with the terrorists realize their mistake. So the ENTV showed us many terrorists’ interrogations where the policeman asked some questions such as “what’s your name, what’s your group, who’s your emir?” (the same questions in Arabic and with the policeman’s voice had the greatest effect). Then suddenly, all this, together with reports on terrorists’ attacks, disappeared after the government decided that terrorism in Algeria became residual. But regardless of what the ENTV said and still says, the Algerian newspapers still report about the tiniest events related to terrorism and security. So nobody believes the ENTV, if someone watches it that is.
A second example of the art of communication on the ENTV is about el harga or clandestine immigration phenomenon. As usual, the phenomenon was ignored until Bouteflika mentioned it in one of his speeches. This “encouraged” HHC to make TV shows where he invited former harragas (the ones who failed) and some analysts so everybody tells the young men and women that they should stay in Algeria. But the president’s speech was followed by a declaration of the religious affairs ministry saying that el harga is haram, and also by the adoption of a law criminalizing it. These two decisions apparently solved the problem of el harga as the ENTV abruptly stopped talking about it. This new silence period affected even the successful TV show, Djemai Family, as two episodes were censored because they treated el harga and oil topics.
And exactly like with terrorism, the Algerian newspapers are full of articles dealing with this topic and relating the harragas tales in Algeria and Europe .
My last example concerns the internet. Algerians do enjoy a free access to the internet and they’re quite active online. There are many Algerian blogs and forums, and their politics sections are usually very busy. But Algeria adopted a new cyber crime law which targets, the government says, piracy, terrorism and sexual websites. However, early this year, Rachad‘s website was banned in Algeria, but again it’s not a total ban as this movement’s YouTube channel is still accessible. Here too, the Algerian newspapers “chose” to not mention this first case of censorship.
In one-party states, information is tightly controlled, and social and political expressions are reduced to their minimum. Algeria’s information management seems to be a combination of tight control of state sources and relative freedom of the private ones. This creates a good level of perceived liberty and freedom of speech. But this combination comes often as random and muddle-brained as shown in the above examples. The very recent example of how the state press reacted to Ali Tounsi’s assassination and all the rumours it created is telling.
Governments, organisations, and individuals, all try to improve their communication strategy and have information management processes. It is important that the Algerian government defines an information strategy with specific and clear goals. Today I feel their strategy is an application of the Algerian saying “khellet’ha tesfa” as it oscillates between total rigidity and chaos, and I don’t think it will handle the growing of computer literacy and the introduction of newer multimedia technologies (Algeria plans to launch digital terrestrial TV transmissions and Algerie Telecom started an IPTV service).