The closure of Liberté: Algeria's embattled media landscape
“After 30 years of an intellectual adventure, Liberté is finished,” announced the Francophone Algerian newspaper on 14 April in its last printed copy following the decision of its owner, the wealthy businessman Issad Rebrab, to liquidate it.
In Algeria, the end of Liberté is far from just a metaphorical farewell from a struggling newspaper to its millions of readers across the country.
It’s also the end of an era through which the independent daily had survived some of the darkest periods in Algeria's history, a country where freedom of speech has always been held at gunpoint.
"We are at a tipping point, the dictatorship is taking hold more and more in Algeria"
Through its reports, investigations, and signature political caricatures by the renowned cartoonist Dilem, Liberté continued to publish daily even during Algeria's 'dark decade' (1991-2002), when the country was shaken by terrorist attacks and political instability.
Two Liberté reporters, Hamid Mahiout and Zineddine Aliou Salah, were murdered in 1995.
After three decades of battling suppression, the decision to close reflects the deterioration of the freedom of the press in the North African country.
"The curtain has fallen on Liberté, our newspaper, your newspaper. (...) It is an exhilarating page in the exercise of a profession that is turning, under the battering of a media policy that is hostile, inefficient to say the least and, above all, damaging to the interests and image of the country," wrote Liberté in its final copy.
Liberté was founded in 1992 by journalists Ahmed Fattani, Hacene Ouandjeli, Ali Ouafek, and businessman Isaad Rebrab before the latter took over the newspaper a few years later.
The daily paper employed around thirty journalists and ten collaborators, with an estimated circulation of 50,000 copies per day and a low unsold rate.
The reasons behind the owner’s decision remain open to interpretation. Officially, the billionaire’s family claimed financial reasons were behind the closure.
However, Ali Boukhlef, an Algerian journalist at Liberté, rejects the alleged financial struggles that Rebrab’s family presented.
“The financial argument is not credible. The company behind Liberté [Cevital] has enough resources to continue operating for many years to come. Mr Rebrab explained that he wanted to retire from public life. Before that, he wanted to close Liberté because his children no longer wanted it,” Boukhlef told The New Arab.
The daily was managed by the Cevital conglomerate. With more than 18,000 employees on three continents, the agriculture-focused company invests in construction, steel, distribution, electronics, household appliances, and the media.
Farid Dms Debah, Algerian director, producer, and founder of the Citizen Movement for Algeria says that other reasons could have pushed the controversial businessman to give up the second most printed Francophone newspaper in Algeria.
“The daily Liberté has become a liability for him [Rebab]. He might not feel ready to bequeath it to his heirs. Also, the controversial hypothesis is that the six months Rebrab spent in preventive prison before being definitively sentenced may have affected him and convinced him to give up Liberté, as it caused him and its journalists many issues,” explained Debah to The New Arab.
"The majority of the media can no longer provide a decent living for journalists"
Algerian tycoon and Bouteflika's rival: Who is Issad Rebrab?
A nationalist tycoon and Hirak activist who was once indicted for fraud, 77-year-old Rebrab is the richest man in the country, the seventh richest in Africa, and one of the most influential personalities in the history of modern Algeria.
As soon as Abdelaziz Bouteflika became the president of Algeria in 1999, Rebrab distanced himself from the regime’s oligarchy, branding himself as “the revolutionary businessman who stands with the people”.
Besides his daily Liberté, Rebrab was a harsh critic of the Bouteflika era. Through his interviews, the businessman attacked the Algerian regime’s financial policies and claimed that because he was ‘Kbaylie,’ from an Amazigh clan, he was prevented from developing large industrial projects that would serve the country’s interests.
In 2014, he cut off ties with Algerian businessmen who supported Bouteflika for a fourth mandate, saying he cannot sit with those "who work against the interests of Algeria".
Two years later, Rebrab bought El Khabar, the second most printed Arabic daily in Algeria. But the government took legal action to have the deal cancelled. Rebrab said the state’s move mirrored its continuous efforts to muzzle freedom of expression in the country.
“I am a free spirit, an independent man, and I think I am paying the consequences of my freedom,” he told Le Monde in 2016.
His fortune, which increased from around forty million dollars in 1999 to five billion dollars twenty years later, emboldened him to wrestle the Bouteflika regime.
In 2019, 74-year-old at the time, Rebrab took to the streets with Hirak activists calling for the resignation of Bouteflika.
Je marche pour l'Algérie— Issad Rebrab (@IssadRebrab) March 1, 2019
أسير من أجل الجزائر pic.twitter.com/f4AkJXP3XH
However, as soon as Bouteflika resigned, the so-called 'Mafia', the wealthiest men of Algeria, became the new target of the Hirak, including Rebrab.
During the same year, Rebrab was trialled for "violation of the legislation and regulations of exchange and capital movements from and to abroad", "forgery and use of forgery", and "false customs declarations".
The court sentenced him to 18 months and a fine of 10.3 million euros. He spent eight months in detention before his trial.
The Panama Papers investigation claimed that Rebrab has had an offshore account since the early 1990s - which is strictly prohibited by Algerian law. Rebrab denied all accusations.
“This is what I personally witnessed: for him and for us, the situation was no longer tenable. His presence was problematic,” explained Boukhlef, a journalist with Liberté.
After leaving prison, Rebrab gradually withdrew from public life before ending the activities of his newspaper.
"Three years after the pro-reform Hirak protests, Algeria remains a dangerous place to be a journalist"
Algerian journalists caught between oppression and a financial crisis
Three years after the pro-reform Hirak protests, Algeria remains a dangerous place to be a journalist.
Ranked 146th (out of 180) in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2021 World Press Freedom Index, Algerian authorities are holding at least 280 activists and dozens of journalists in detention, mostly for defamation of politicians or because of publications on social networks.
“In recent years we have been forced into self-censorship. Journalists have been imprisoned for reporting. The pressures on media managers pushed us to be careful about what we write,” explains Boukhlef.
In 2019, Algerians toppled the two-decade-long-regime of Bouteflika, envisioning a future where the criticism of politicians would not be censored. The Algerian path to democracy was soon sabotaged by the newborn regime of current president Abdelmadjid Tebboune.
“We are at a tipping point, the dictatorship is taking hold more and more in Algeria. Before [the Hirak] there was no independence, but it was less bad than now. Apart from expressing yourself anonymously, today nothing is possible in Algeria,” Farid Dms Debah, the founder of the Citizen Movement for Algeria, told The New Arab.
In June 2021, President Tebboune expanded Algeria’s already overbroad definition of “terrorism” in article 87 of the penal code to include “to work for or to incite by any means, to accede to power or change the system of governance by non-constitutional means” and to “harm the integrity of national territory or to incite doing so, by any means”.
The authorities have since used this article to prosecute an increasing number of activists, journalists, and human rights defenders.
In addition to the crackdown on freedom of speech, financial hardships in the last twenty years have pushed many titles, such as Le Matin, La Tribune and the weekly La Nation, to close over a drop in advertising revenue and sales.
El-Watan, the most widely printed Francophone newspaper in Algeria, recently released a statement predicting that its closure is only "a question of time" due to rising political pressure and the economic situation it faces.
“The majority of the media can no longer provide a decent living for journalists,” Boukhlef lamented.
Basma El Atti is The New Arab's Morocco correspondent.
Follow her on Twitter: @elattibasma