- Power, Censorship, and the Press: The Case of Postcolonial Algeria
“I do not want to take drugs for my nightmares because I must remain a memorial to my dead friends.”—A Vietnam Vet
The history of the press in Algeria is linked to and closely reflects the contradictions of this North African country’s postcolonial regime as well as the evolution of its social and political movements and its struggle for democracy. In this respect, the context of its emergence, its operating conditions, and its changing status are directly related to the forces that created and have continued to control the modern Algerian economy, political structures, and institutions for more than thirty years. Indeed, since the country’s independence in 1962, the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN, the National Liberation Front), a military and political structure conceived and born during the anti-French resistance and National Liberation War (1954–62), has been determining all aspects of the economy, education, political organizations, and state institutions, as well as the dissemination of information nationwide.
Because of a war tradition forged during the confrontation against ruthless French colonialism, Algerian leaders almost systematically identify journalistic information with intelligence. For this reason, the control of the media and the selection of their members were traditionally carried out by ministries keen on choosing their own journalists and instruments of dissemination of information. Furthermore, this process as a whole was always monitored by the all-powerful secret service, which as a metastructure of supervision and control had the last say in the matter. Consequently, journalism in Algeria was not conceived as a profession based on the principle of providing information to the public and expressing different perspectives and ideas, but rather as a means of propaganda, an instrument of state control of the citizens’ opinions, and a weapon in the struggle against both internal and external enemies in the tense national and international situations confronting the postcolonial regime.
That understanding of journalism explains the paradoxical fact that after the country’s independence, the successive governments based their treatment of information on the basis of the “law of 31 December 1962,” a law that basically kept the French colonial legislation—the military rule the country was under—nearly intact. The statute of 5 July 1973 simply confirmed the previous law with an amendment stipulating that it should not harm “national sovereignty.” As noted by Brahim Brahimi, it was not until 1981 that a code of information was adopted by the National and Popular Assembly. Indeed, the “law of February 6 1982-JORADP # 6 of February 9, 1982” (JORADP, Journal Officiel de la République Algérienne [End Page 51] Démocratique et Populaire) is the first text of law regulating the function of information in Algeria. This means that for twenty years the official treatment of the media was not based on legislation but on ideological and political decisions made by the regime without provision for any kind of explanation, debate, or appeal. Furthermore, the 1982 code was so restrictive that members of the media nicknamed it “code pénal bis” ‘the second penal code.’
For the postcolonial regime that is managed by the FLN Party but in fact largely controlled by the army, the Algerian ideology is based, on the one hand, on a combination of state capitalism and nationalist discourse and, on the other hand, on a synthesis of socialist ideals and Arab-Muslim principles. This situation has led to the coinage of the terms “Specific Socialism” and “Responsible Democracy” to describe the regime’s ideology, an ideology to which all sectors of society and all individuals must submit. Within this framework, just as the economy must be ruled centrally and the state institutions and administrative structures supervised by an omnipotent bureaucracy, the press must depend totally on the authority of a governmental body, the Ministry of Information, and the various structures linked to it either openly or indirectly.
For a long time—at least until the 1988 nationwide popular riots that led to an open challenge of the regime and the beginning of a relative liberalization—the press, like industry and all sectors of cultural as well as political activity...