A multi-dimensional crisis : Journalism in Algeria put to the test by Covid-19

The Coronavirus epidemic has not spared the media sector in Algeria. The media landscape, consisting mainly of the paper press, could be transformed by this health crisis. A change that requires real awareness of professionals, publishers, and public authorities.

Working as a journalist in pandemic conditions is an extremely complicated act. In the case of Algeria, the situation is even more complex because of the lack of means of protection. Faced with this threat, the management of newspapers - which make up the bulk of the Algerian media - reacted very quickly to the first social distancing measures imposed by the authorities in March 2020. Journalists were forced to confine themselves and continue their work from their homes. Within a few days, the Algerian press was discovering teleworking.

But this model could not be applied to all media. In the audio-visual sector, journalists are required to go out into the field to collect images and sound. For news, it is almost impossible to gather this material remotely. Except for public radio and television stations that have provided masks and disinfecting gel to their crews, so-called "private" television stations are faced with the thorny issue of protecting their staff. Every day, journalists, technicians, and drivers work with the risk of being contaminated by Covid-19.

The Coronavirus, sensitive information

Whether they are working from home or in the field, journalists are required to follow the evolution of the Coronavirus since its first appearance in Algeria. They must also report concrete facts about the impact of the disease on the country's society and economy. As for the daily state of the contagion, the authorities very quickly introduced red lines: no doctor, hospital director or local health director can announce figures related to Covid-19.

Only the National Commission for Monitoring and Surveillance of the Coronavirus Epidemic, composed of scientists, can provide data on the disease. For the government, the objective is to ensure communication that is "as transparent, reliable and credible as possible". Every day at 5 p.m., at a press conference, this commission presents official statistics on the progress of the disease. However, this press conference is not really a press conference, since the spokesperson of this body simply lists the numbers of new cases, recovered patients and deaths.

Journalists have soon understood that the authorities took the sensitivity of health information very seriously. At the end of March, the daily El-Sawt-el-Akher published a letter from a member of parliament to the wali of Batna in which he denounced a misdiagnosis by the Algiers Pasteur Institute. According to the deputy, a patient who tested negative for Covid-19 was in fact a carrier of the virus, a situation that would have caused the disease to spread in his locality. After being summoned by the national police, two journalists and the director of this publication were placed under judicial supervision for "undermining national unity" and "distribution of a publication that could harm the national interest" ...

A multidimensional crisis

This case shows how complex the exercise of the profession of journalist has become in Algeria. Of course, these difficulties predate the pandemic. The case of journalists Khaled Drarni and Sofiane Merakechi, who have been held in pre-trial detention for several weeks, and the blocking of certain electronic media are further proof of this. But the evil is deeper. The multidimensional crisis is apparent on a daily basis through self-censorship, difficulties in accessing sources of information, the refusal of newsrooms to tackle certain issues, the absence of representative unions, the lack of regulation governing the press sector, the decline in readership, competition from social networks and the drying up of financial resources from advertising. In Algeria, all the media - public and private - are suffering, in one way or another, from the repercussions of this crisis.

Raising awareness

In this slump, the pandemic had the effect of an electroshock, particularly within the paper press, which officially counts 181 titles. The "classic" readership being difficult to reach because of the curfew and the containment measures imposed by the authorities, several dailies decided to limit the number of printed pages and to strengthen their electronic editions. The shift to digital, which should have taken place in a more serene context in 2010, was imposed almost by force, within a few weeks. Of course, this migration must take place on two very distinct but closely linked spaces: on the newspaper's website and on social networks, essentially on Facebook and to a lesser degree on Twitter. But competition is tough in the digital space. Television, radio, general and specialized periodicals, blogs, groups... all are fighting a fierce battle to be seen and to get a "like".

Lack of regulation

As an exceptional fact in the history of the press and communication, all these media have been dealing with one and the same subject for more than two months: The Coronavirus. They are just declining it from different angles: health, economic, societal, environmental. They talk about the availability of masks, the bankruptcy of airline companies, home delivery, domestic violence stifled by confinement, sport at home, measures to be taken during "de-confinement". But there is also talk of intoxication, fake news, and conspiracy theories around the creation of SARS-CoV-2.

Faced with this large flow of information, readers are often lost. The few mechanisms that regulate the Algerian media landscape disappear instantly as soon as the media find themselves in the digital space. The Coronavirus crisis could be an opportunity to launch debates to set up new rules to develop and organize the sector. Starting with the possibility of finding financial resources. Algerian newspapers are currently unable to monetize the information they publish on the Internet because of the lack of e-banking and m-banking platforms. The issue of intellectual property protection in terms of copyright and image rights is totally absent.

Freedom and credibility

The Algerian government, through the Ministry of Communication, has shown its willingness to "reform the sector" to achieve a "professional and responsible press". This reform process, which was launched at the beginning of March 2020, is to be based on a dozen "work sites". However, the risk would be to undertake a wide-ranging reform without a debate of ideas and in the absence of organizations representing press professionals. It is necessary to act in such a way as to establish a climate conducive to the development of the sector, based on respect for universal rules of ethics, the principles of protection of journalists and a market open to all media. The Algerian press will certainly emerge weakened from this health crisis, but without freedom and credibility it will not be able to withstand the economic crisis.

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Tarik Hafid, journalist, Algiers

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