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The Algerian press & mass-market reach

December 1, 2009

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. 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.


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