El Watan is back on Algeria’s newsstands but its survival is still threatened
Algeria’s leading French-speaking daily, which has never ceased to be in the government’s sights in the 32 years of its existence, is back on sale after its journalists suspended the strike they launched in July over non-payment of salaries, but the heavily indebted newspaper’s problems have not been resolved and it could easily go under.
“The disappearance of the newspaper El Watan would be an absurd setback for Algerian journalism and can be avoided,” said Khaled Drareni, the North Africa representative of Reporters Without Borders (RSF). “A solution exists if all those involved in the crisis show goodwill. Algeria has nothing to gain from killing off professional journalism. El Watan must be treated like any company in difficulty and must be allowed to reschedule its debts.
El Watan has been back on the newsstands since 17 August after its employees decided to go back to work for a month in order to give the management time to find a way out of the crisis. But none of the problems that created this crisis has been resolved and the newspaper’s survival remains in doubt.
El Watan’s employees, including its journalists, have not been paid since March, a journalist who joined the daily more than 15 years ago confirmed to RSF. This is because the newspaper’s accounts have been blocked by one of its banks, Crédit Populaire d'Algérie (CPA), for non-payment of its debts. After discussions with the management reached an impasse, the journalists decided to go on strike on 12 July. A press release by the trade union section of El Watan said the employees were starting this strike to put pressure on their management over “the untenable situation they are experiencing – a decision that is all the more necessary since no crisis resolution plan has been submitted.”
The press release held the newspaper’s shareholders responsible for the blocking of its accounts and the non-payment of wages. The strikers blame poor management and the refusal of shareholders to inject the required funds into the company to make it possible to pay the salaries of the staff of a newspaper that produced profits for many years.
The newspaper's management sees things very differently and disputes the merits of this strike. The board of directors of the El Watan joint-stock company (SPA) said in a press release that the “management has been working for several months to find solutions with the tax authorities, the SPA’s main bank and Crédit Populaire d'Algérie (CPA), which blocked all of its financial accounts". The board also reported that “the many appeals to the public authorities have been in vain.”
The management therefore believes it is not responsible for the cash flow problem, which it blames on factors beyond its control. On the one hand, it says, the banking authorities are blocking the newspaper’s accounts. And, on the other, the newspaper has not been able to move into its new purpose-built headquarters because of obstacles created by the local authorities. And to compound it all, the newspaper continues to be boycotted by ANEP, the public agency that distributes advertisements to the national press.
Without disputing the arguments of the journalists, who have been drawing attention to El Watan’s internal management problems for years, the role of the authorities cannot be ignored either. El Watan tends to support the progressive opposition, it is very critical of the government, and its articles have often annoyed officials. For years, government ministers have talked of getting rid of the newspaper.
Unfortunately, this is now quite possible given the newspaper’s financial problems. According to the news website Twala, El Watan owes 45 million dinars to the CPA bank and 55 million dinars in taxes.
Without naming them, communication minister Mohamed Bouslimani attacked El Watan and fellow French-language newspaper Liberté last February for saying the government had backtracked on the president’s decision to waive taxes on digital products. His frontal attack was a clear indication of the government’s refusal to continue accepting any criticism of its policies.
Liberté was shut down less than two months later by its billionaire owner, Issad Rebrab. “This 30-year-old newspaper, a leading source of independent news reporting, had been subjected to constant political pressure from the highest level of the Algerian government in recent years”, RSF commented at the time, deploring the “sudden sacrifice of this newspaper for no valid reason” and expressing concern “for other media outlets in Algeria.”
The concern was clearly justified because now, four months later, another Algerian press flagship could suffer the same fate. El Watan’s return to the newsstands offers a small glimmer of hope but this may not last long as the union has made it clear that the strike will resume within a month if salaries are not paid. A major shareholder meanwhile told RSF he rejected this ultimatum and confirmed that all negotiations with the strikers were suspended until their return to work was permanent.
The union has asked a judge to issue an emergency order releasing the newspaper's blocked accounts so that salaries can be paid. It would be a common sense measure and it is to be hoped that the judge will act appropriately. But it is also quite possible that the newspaper will file for bankruptcy. The Algerian authorities hold much of the solution to the crisis. Firstly, they must stop manipulating the advertisement allocation mechanisms for political purpose. And then they must treat El Watan like any troubled company and allow it to negotiate a rescheduling of its debts. Otherwise, they will be held accountable for contributing to the disappearance of another newspaper and to putting its journalists out of work