North Africa's online journalists fights for survival

Caught in a narrowing net: North African digital journalists fight for survival
6 min read
08 Dec, 2021
North African online journalists forged courageous new paths for their profession since the Arab uprising began ten years ago, yet today they are being caught by a tightening web of state repression redux, writes Elisa Pierandrei.
A staff member of Mada Masr, a Cairo-based independent news website, works in their office on 25 January 2015 in Cairo, Egypt. [Getty]

Although almost all Arab states' constitutions value freedom of expression, being a journalist in the region has never been easy.

After obtaining their independence from colonial powers, Arab states nationalised media outlets and established their broadcasting systems regulated by a ministry that could introduce restrictions to limit freedom of expression. Then the Internet arrived, and since, it has been used by activists as a channel for disseminating counterpropaganda. This has not been without any cost, and it is difficult now to imagine journalism without this influence.

As web 2.0 tools became more powerful, activists' uses of the Internet grew increasingly sophisticated. Subsequently, citizen journalism emerged in North Africa as a counter to contemporary journalism and could challenge various regimes’ grip on media.

Among others, there is the independent digital platform Nawaat (meaning, "The Core") that was launched as a collective blog in 2004 by Tunisian political dissidents Sami Ben Gharbia, Sufian Guerfali, and Riadh "Astrubal" Guerfali and was a forum for Tunisian citizens to express their opinions on current affairs and challenge Ben Ali's government. Nawaat became accessible from Tunisia only following a change of regime.

"a new wave of liberalisation swept over the Arab region, paving the way for media platforms that could better serve the public, often by providing systematic, in-depth, and original research and investigative reporting"

Since the removal of Ben Ali, Nawaat has grown into a platform powered by "nearly a thousand authors and a team of professional journalists and bloggers," according to its website, and draws its content through "contributions from activists, whistleblowers, and citizens involved in public affairs."

With the eruption of the Arab uprisings, a new wave of liberalisation swept over the Arab region, paving the way for media platforms that could better serve the public, often by providing systematic, in-depth, and original research and investigative reporting.

In this period, several independently-funded online newspapers have been launched in North Africa, managed by journalists eager to produce original content in a non-complacent tone towards the political power and post-ideological; meaning that the content was no longer characterised by a strong adherence to political or social ideologies.

This is certainly a positive development, although according to observers the owners of some of these news sites are still somehow connected to the ruling elites. Le Desk, Inkyfada, Casbah Tribune, to name but a few, regularly publish news and reports in French and Arabic, and often in English such as in the cases of Mada Masr and Libya Observer.

Perspectives

Headquartered in Casablanca, Le Desk is an online news and investigative outlet that was founded in 2014-2015 by restless veteran journalist Ali Amar with his spouse Fatima-Zahra Lqadiri, alongside art dealer and angel investor Aziz Aouadi. The group was quickly joined by co-founder journalists Omar Radi and Christophe Guguen. Its name refers to the "transfer point" between a reporter and an editor, a desk (or bureau) that may assign journalists to stories or simply ensure that they are delivered properly. It is affiliated with the US-based nonprofit International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).

In the same region, the webzine Inkyfada was founded in Tunisia in 2014, the same year Le Desk was established. The name is a pun based on the Arabic word "intifada", meaning "uprising" and the English word "ink," so the full name means "ink uprising," which incorporates the idea of new journalism in Tunisia. According to its website, it is "an independent, nonprofit media group founded in 2014 by a team of journalists, developers, and graphic designers to support the public interest through innovative journalistic content." The site was chosen by the ICIJ to conduct the investigations into the Panama Papers in Tunisia.

More recently, various state apparatuses have tightened control over the media, with various platforms being increasingly monitored, and censorship from repressive regimes is far from over. Further complicating things on North Africa’s agenda is the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with an economic recession and a corresponding sharp rise in poverty and debt.

Perspectives

Multiple governments in the region still rely on accusations of terrorism and religious extremism to silence political dissent, demonstrating zero-tolerance against various forms of political activism that criticise their conduct. 

In this respect, Omar Radi's recent detention has caused quite a stir among the national and international community of journalists. In July 2021, a Casablanca court sentenced - without a fair trial - the 35-year-old journalist, human rights activist, and Le Desk co-founder to six years in jail (pending appeal) on charges of "espionage" and is accused of "assault with violence and rape", accusations that he has always denied. Radi, who was awarded the 2013 IMS-AMJI Investigative Journalism Award, investigated a variety of cases, from corruption among politicians and members of parliament to budgetary problems in the education program, as well as covering social movements in the Rif region. 

In July 2021, the United States had just criticized its ally Morocco's human rights record after it gave a five-year jail term to another journalist, Soulaimane Raissouni, who was working as the chief editor of the now-shuttered opposition newspaper Akhbar Al Yaoum. Moroccan independent journalists and press freedom defenders are not alone in this battle.

"North African journalists, who were forging new ways to practice their profession on the web with responsibility and courage, are now been caught in an ever-tightening net of state repression"

Journalist, founder, and director of the Algerian online newspaper Casbah Tribune, Khaled Drareni, who is also the Reporters Without Borders representative for Algeria and Algiers correspondent for the French broadcaster TV5 Monde, was arrested and sentenced to prison in 2020. Since February 2019, Drareni has been covering Hirak demonstrations in Algiers. He was arrested in March 2020, and charged three days later for "undermining the integrity of the national territory" and "unarmed assembly".

Drareni was released on 19 February 2021, one day after a "presidential pardon" was granted to several detainees who had been arrested in the context of the Hirak protests. In the last two years alone, several online news sites have reportedly been blocked in Algeria, including Casbah Tribune, Twala, Maghreb Emergent, and the web-based radio station Radio M.

More than ten years after the Arab Spring, the turmoil that swept across North Africa has taken many forms. North African journalists, who were forging new ways to practice their profession on the web with responsibility and courage, are now been caught in an ever-tightening net of state repression.

Elisa Pierandrei is an Italian journalist and author based in Milan. She writes and researches stories across art, literature, and visual media

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.