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Algeria: Country's biggest French-language daily newspaper in crisis

After four months without pay, journalists at El Watan have gone on strike, highlighting a press crisis in Algeria
A man reads El Watan newspaper in a street in the capital, Algiers, on 16 September 2019 (AFP)
By Ali Boukhlef in Algiers

The employees of Algeria’s largest French-language daily newspaper started a two-day strike on Tuesday, in protest at staff not having received their salaries for four months. 

“We tried hard enough to save the newspaper, but we can't take it any more,” said one member of staff at El Watan newspaper.

'Some journalists don't even have enough to pay for a bus or fuel to come to work'

- Journalist at El Watan

After more than 20 years on the editorial staff, the journalist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he was "disappointed" and "surprised" by the behaviour of the management, who "did not even bother to thank us for having worked without being paid”.

Since February, the management at the privately owned El Watan has claimed it was unable to pay the salaries of its 150 employees. According to its director, Mohamed Tahar Messaoudi, the situation was linked to the freezing of the company's accounts by the Credit Populaire d’Algerie (CPA) bank and the tax services.

The CPA had requested the newspaper pay its tax arrears dating back to the early Covid lockdown, when the government had authorised companies to defer the payment of their taxes. But once the Covid crisis had peaked, the newspaper's publishers were ordered to pay 32 million dinars (more than €210,000) "without delay", Messaoudi told Middle East Eye.

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Blocked accounts

"The tax authorities refused to grant us a payment schedule as provided for by law," Messaoudi said, saying that an employee of the tax authorities who had given the newspaper an extended repayment period had been "transferred" and "replaced". The information was confirmed to MEE by a source from the tax authority in Algiers.

The repayment of the tax debt came on top of another problem. The management had been saying for several years that it was "short of money", due to the drying up of private advertising revenue and the "unilateral" suspension of an agreement signed with the National Publishing and Advertising Agency (a public body with a monopoly on state advertising). It had to resort to a bank loan to pay the salaries of its employees. 

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But a drop in activity in January led to the bank reducing the amount of this loan, explained Messaoudi, who believed that “this is no longer enough to pay salaries and other company expenses”.

This decision by the bank was "unjustified", he added, since El Watan "is solvent" - the newspaper has "income linked to its sales" and "to assets" which allow it to repay its debts in case of cash-flow problems. The management had tried to sell land to replenish the coffers, but with the accounts blocked, this was not possible.

Employees are now refusing “to make more sacrifices”. After several months of waiting, they decided to go on strike. 

“It's the only way to defend our interests. We have been working without any prospects for four months,” a journalist and trade unionist told MEE. “Some journalists don't even have enough to pay for a bus or fuel to come to work.”

Even though he said he "understands" the situation, like many of his colleagues, the journalist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, believes that the authorities were not the only ones to blame for blocking El Watan's accounts. According to the journalist, even the shareholders - former journalists in state media - "have a share of responsibility". In particular, he accused the owners of “having granted themselves undue wages, without work in return, while the company was dying”. 

'The employees think that the shareholders are rich. It's not true. And even if we wanted to act, the bank accounts are blocked'

- Mohamed Tahar Messaoudi, El Watan director

In June, the journalists sent a letter to the shareholders, seen by MEE, urging them "to make a gesture towards the employees". But “no response was given”, said the trade unionist. 

The shareholders do not accept these accusations. 

“The employees think that the shareholders are rich. It's not true,” said Messaoudi. “And then, even if we wanted to act, the bank accounts are blocked, so there is no way to channel the funds.”

In a press release on 12 July, the employees of El Watan declared they had "agreed to give in to their most basic right, that of remuneration, in order to give management time to find a way out of the financial problems of the company”.

They added that, in addition to its inability to find a way out of the crisis, “the management does not offer any serious dialogue” with them.

History of harassment and sanctions

A few years ago, no one could have imagined that this jewel of the Algerian press, created in 1990, would experience such a desperate fate.  

The newspaper gained prominence with its reports during the civil war and its revelations on corruption within the civil and military powers. Such fearless reporting sometimes led to its suspension, legal harassment and administrative sanctions. 

Under the reign of the late President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, El Watan established itself as a reputable opposition newspaper. Then the financial windfall linked to Algeria's healthy economy in the early 2000s allowed it to grow its independence by buying a printing press, which it shared with the Arabic-language newspaper El Khabar.

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In 2010, the newspaper began the construction of an office tower in Algiers, an indication of its booming finances. 

But the glass building overlooking the bay of Algiers was never occupied. It failed to obtain a licence, for allegedly not meeting construction standards. The company has since been based in another building called La Maison de la Presse (The Press House).

The owners of the newspaper at the time described the decision as a "political coup", believing that the authorities wanted to "punish them for their editorial independence", while the municipality cited a simple violation of town planning rules. 

Since 2014, El Watan has paid the price for its campaign against Bouteflika's fourth term, as private companies have been pressured to stop advertising with the newspaper and state advertising also dried up.

After Bouteflika resigned under pressure from mass demonstrations and the army in the spring of 2019, state advertising returned. But this era was short-lived. An article evoking alleged corruption cases involving the children of the former army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah settled the fate of the newspaper. 

After El Watan Week-end, the magazine version of the newspaper, closed in 2016 after seven years of publication, its former editors-in-chief, Adlene Meddi and Mélanie Matarese, published a letter questioning the "disintegration of editorial staff". 

‘Global crisis’ for the press

In May, Minister of Communication Mohamed Bouslimani visited the editorial staff at El Watan. He promised to "make a gesture" to unblock the situation, but warned it was "conditioned" on the need to "promote what is positive in the country", according to witnesses. 

Those in charge did not change their editorial line and the minister's promise was not followed up.

The crisis is symptomatic of the difficulties faced by many media in Algeria. In April, another major French-language newspaper, Liberté, ceased publication. 

According to Cherif Driss, professor of information sciences at the Higher School of Journalism in Algiers, what is happening to El Watan is a consequence of "the global crisis that the paper press is experiencing in the face of the digital press", the “contraction” of advertising by private companies since the country’s economic recession in 2014, and “the increasingly tense relationship between political power and the press since 2019”.

"The media are obliged to be less critical of political power," he told MEE. “These pressures are forcing journalists to turn into mere communicators” and newspapers to self-censor.

*This article was first published in French.

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