Skip to content

The Algerian press & mass-market reach

December 1, 2009
by

I don’t have time to get into any detail here, or to find comparable up-to-date figures, but I’d just like to throw you a thought that has been with me for a while, which I hope someone more competent may carry further. Here’s what the European Journalism Centre has to say about Algeria’s printed-press landscape:

Algeria has about 50 daily or weekly publications. Most of them circulate 15.000 copies, roughly estimated. Only four newspapers are estimated to boast circulation greater than 50.000 copies: Arabic- language El Khabar (530.000); Le Quotidien d’Oran (140.000-198.000) Liberté (120.000- 150.000) and El-Watan (70.000-90.000) in French.

These must be old figures, since Ech Chorouk El Youmi actually passed El Khabar to become the biggest paper a few years back, also claiming around 500,000 copies. I don’t know which one is ahead at the moment, but as far as I know they’re both still up there at somewhere, both said to be above 400,000 copies/day + weekly supplements and such. In fact, Ech Chorouk claims to have temporarily broken the frankly incredible 2,000,000 limit during the recent Algerian-Egyptian football wars, where it played a leading part by publishing sensationalist claims of Algerian fans having been murdered (the paper shamelessly puts it down to its journalistic “rigour and professionalism”).

UNNAMED GENERAL TO PRES. BOUDIAF: "So, here's the program: Today you go to Algiers, on March 2 you go to Oran, on June 29 to Annaba ... and on June 30, you'll be at El Alia." (Cartoon by DILEM.)

Recall: those papers are all privately owned. While not necessarily independent from the cirles of power, they definitely represent different perspectives and to some extent different interests. Liberté, for example, is identified with the ultrasecularist Berberist liberal party RCD, while the Arabophone El Chorouk tends to more Islamic perspectives, eg. running series with Sheikh Qaradawi. They have all had problems with the government at various points in their history, and while there are certainly areas they won’t touch, they can be quite outspoken in their criticism of the government. They tend to tread very carefully with the army and security issues, but President Bouteflika is regularly read the riot act in several of these papers. If they go much too far, they can certainly be shut down, as was the case of Le Matin (now only available online), but that is rare. In short, then, as far as press freedom goes, Algeria is much freer than full-blown dictatorships like Tunisia and Libya, but broadly similar to liberalized autocracies such as Egypt, Morocco and perhaps some other of the better-placed Arab countries — maybe Kuwait, perhaps Yemen, I don’t really know — although behind regional star Lebanon, and obviously Israel.

So in that way they are similar: many Middle Eastern countries have a semi-free press, which is mostly independent but not free to write what it wants. What is considered a red line varies from country to country, but on the whole, Algeria’s press appears about as free/unfree as that in Morocco or Egypt. But in one way, it really stands out. Rembember the print figures above? Now compare them with local giant Egypt (2006):

The announced circulation figures for local newspapers are generally seen as unreliable. The daily Arabic Al-Ahram says it sells approximately one million copies a day, as does Al-Akhbar. Al-Masri Al-Yom is believed to distribute between 10,000 and 50,000 copies a day. Topping the weekly independent newspapers is Al-Osbou, with a circulation of between 100,000 to 120,000 copies. It is followed by Al-Dostour, with between 80,000 to 90,000. The Nasserist Party’s mouthpiece Al-Arabi and the independent Sawt Al-Umma, are believed to distribute around 30,000 copies each.

(N.B. both Ahram & Akhbar are state-owned and benefit from government support. Algeria’s state-owned papers are El Moudjahid, El Chaâb, El Massa, and Horizons [website virus-alert] neither of which is widely read — they’re crap — but still massively distributed to public institutions and such, probably as part of some scheme to line politicians’ pockets.)

Compare those numbers. Then compare populations: Algeria ~35 mil, Egypt ~80 mil. More than twice the size. The same discrepancy is apparent if one compares with Morocco (similar size, at ~35 mil), where readership is really low, despite having some interesting papers — probably mostly because of it being a poorer country:

Newspapers in Morocco suffer from a fairly limited readership. In Morocco, which has 33,8 million inhabitants, all print media combined sell 350,000 copies/day, compared with 1,3 million copies in neighboring Algeria, which has 33,3 million inhabitants.

Again, a significant difference: the Algerian readership is measured at almost four times the Moroccan figure.

So, to conclude this rambling heap of unrelated statistics: it would quite simply seem that Algerian papers sell incredibly well, compared to Arab countries with a similar level of press freedom. Even if we assume that the Algerian print numbers above are too high, we could cut them in half, and they would still be eyebrow-raising figures. Why this is so, I’m sure one could speculate forever, but what I’m interested in here is the effect: even if Algerian papers are not exceptional for their content, their impact on public opinion must be proportionally far bigger than in comparable countries, simply because they are read so widely. Yet I’ve never seen this noted anywhere, even in literature on Arab media.

It would seem to me that the Algerian press gets far too little credit as a factor in public opinion, and in Algerian politics generally, since outside watchdogs tend to focus on the content and the limits of political reporting, rather than the actual reach of newspapers. While most private papers in Arab countries tend to cater to rather slim sections of elite opinion, Algeria’s papers have achieved at least some mass-market reach, while at the same time they remain reasonably independent and pluralist.

Of course, there’s no denying it, red lines persist in both domestic (eg. security issues & elite affairs) and foreign (eg. W. Sahara) policy. It’s obvious that the country is not in any way, shape or form a democracy, and that decision-makers will not respond to public opinon unless forced to. And compared to developed countries, say any in Europe, the Algerian print figures are obviously very low. But even under these circumstances, the Algerian press can clearly drive and shape developments at times, even when the state seems hesitant, and this role may well come to grow in the future, as the press asserts its independence and censorship methods are blunted by technological developments.

Algerian fans holding a copy of an unidentified newspaper in protests against Egypt

The football riots of these past weeks are a case in point. Independent papers (presumably with the tacit acceptance of the government) were the ones to fan the flames, both in Algeria and Egypt. The press, more than television or radio, seems to have been the main force in mobilizing civil society — admittedly for a lousy goal* — in a way and with an effect rarely seen in this region. For all the overwhelming importance of al-Jazeera and other electronic media, it just seems to me that the influence of the printed press (and its online appendices) is underrated, as its popular impact slowly grows with literacy and increased independence. It could be a force for good — empowering civil society, such as it is — but also, as the above example shows, for bad: sensationalism and inflammatory journalism to sell copies. But if I’m not altogether mistaken about these figures and what they signify — and contrary opinions are welcome — it’s a force to be reckoned with, and a phenomenon which people would be well served to pay more attention to.

(*) pun intended.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. December 1, 2009 06:20

    Great post. The only question left: who owns the big papers?
    I wonder how literacy rates affect the relative sizes between Algeria and Morocco. Also, because of my shameless bias, when will there be a Chaouia-language daily with a circulation in excess of 30,000? :P

  2. ibnkafka permalink*
    December 1, 2009 13:45

    Algeria has the highest literacy rate of the three countries mentioned: the adult literacy rate in Morocco is 56% (UNDP 2007), Algeria 75% and Egypt 66%, but the difference is roughly 20%, but it doesn’t explain the huge gap in Algeria’s favor. Could it be the price as well? Newspapers in Morocco are rather expensive: around 3 or 4 dirhams, ie 0,30€, or the price of two “baguettes”.

  3. ibnkafka permalink*
    December 1, 2009 14:13

    As an afterthought: any idea about the Tunisian figures?

  4. December 1, 2009 16:30

    IK — Price seems likely to explain a lot of what literacy doesn’t account for. It was a couple of years since I was in Algeria, but I think (correct me please) a daily newspaper costs 10 DA, which is €0.1, so a third of the price in Morocco. I don’t know what subsidies are involved, but this site has some interesting numbers:

    The government officially announced in 1998 that a budget of 400 million Algerian dinars (about $6.5 million) had been allocated to aid the press. By 2001, 500 million Algerian dinars had been committed to aid journalists who opted to leave the public sector in favor of the private sector. This aid came in the form of two years of guaranteed salary.

    From the establishment of a private press in 1990 until Dec. 31, 1995, the state subsidized the publishing costs by paying the difference between the actual cost and what the newspapers were able to pay. The state has also made available three press centers to public and private newspapers.

    That’s interesting, if subsidies play that big a part. Good for circulation, but it also gives the government an opportunity to attach all sorts of strings.

    On Tunisia, the Arab Press Network says: “The press also suffers from limited circulation: the best selling Al Shurouq sells around 45,000 copies while La Presse sells around 30,000.” — country is small, but literacy is good so those figures would seem comparatively low. (Note that I’ve used a couple of different sources for print figures, so they may not be perfectly comparable.)

    Kal — I think there are occasional Kabyle pages in some of the state papers, but I guess that’s no help to you. (Or to the Kabyles, supposing they want to read about something other than the glory of Abdelaziz Bouteflika.)

    Ownership: that really interests me as well. I don’t know, really. Liberté is owned by Issad Rebrab, a Kabyle tycoon, but that’s all I know. Many of the older papers (90s) were apparently started by various journalist collectives breaking out from state papers, but I’m sure financing and support must have come from somewhere.

  5. Karim permalink
    December 2, 2009 18:39

    Any idea of the actual sales for Algerian newspapers? Most of the figures are about copies printed/day but sales figures would give a better idea of their impact. Given the subsidies it’s possible that the number of copies printed may not be optimized to minimize losses (subscriptions are basically non-existent).

    About Echourouk: They claimed to have reached 1 million prints on November 11:

    http://www.echoroukonline.com/fra/index.php?news=5344

    Then, we are to believe that less than 3 weeks later, they could double that?
    http://www.echoroukonline.com/fra/index.php?news=5437

    Sounds totally bogus to me.

  6. December 3, 2009 11:20

    Karim — I agree the Echorouk figures seem outrageous, but I do think they could have had a big spike in those days, when they (alone) were reporting on Algerian dead in the football riots. But 2 million sounds incredibly high.

    On prints/sales: very good point. Depending on what kinds of subsidies exist today, that could certainly explain some of it. If private papers still enjoy some system similar to that in place between 1990 and 1995 (in my comment above), there definitely seems to be an incentive to print more than they can sell, or at least not to be overly cautious with printing costs. Also, I think with state papers generally this is a big issue, although they’re not that important anymore in Algeria.

  7. December 3, 2009 11:36

    Oh, I just read the Algerian Review post pointing to this thread. Well worth the visit for those who haven’t seen it, and seems to be a promising new blog.

  8. December 5, 2009 17:01

    Interesting. On the actual utility end, I would observe that the quality Moroccan papers (excluding the “red line” subjects) actually are fairly decent quality journalism. I frequently observe that re business and economic policy (my biases when reading), one can actually read intelligent commentary. The Algerian papers are, in my reading, very cheap, and the quality of journalism fairly in keeping with the pricing.

    • Salim permalink
      February 11, 2010 01:42

      I really love it when I read unsubstantiated claims like yours. I’d love for you to give us a chance to discuss this further by telling us which newspapers exactly you’re referring to.

  9. youssef permalink
    May 28, 2010 17:33

    Just on a side note, but it might be of some interest regarding the Moroccan figures. Some years ago, Almasaa I think, claimed that its readership is fourfold what it sells because an average of 4 people read the same print. It might well be true since I’ve often been the third reader of a paper and whenever I buy one, I almost always pass it along to someone else.

Trackbacks

  1. The Success of Arabic Algerian Newspapers « Algerian Review
  2. The fallout from Cairo and Khartoum « DZ Calling
  3. Algerian Blogger Creates a Storm « Algerian Review

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: