The new multimedia tools (blogs, Facebook, Dailymotion...) don't seem to have posed much of a threat to traditional media in Algeria. At least not according to Fayçal Métaoui, former editor-in-chief of the El Watan daily and manager of the paper's website. The high cost of computers, electricity, and high speed connections are just some of the reasons for this, says Métaoui.
By Samuel Henry
APN: Is there a blogging community in Algeria?
Fayçal Métaoui: There isn't really a blogging community yet, or at least not in the sense that we normally use the term. Certainly, the number of people starting up their own blogs increases every day. I would guess the number of bloggers to be - and this is by no means a definite number - about 100,000. Not all Algerian homes have high speed Internet and the cost of access is still high relative to the average salary. Most bloggers are young students, artists, unemployed university graduates, or managers.
APN: So it seems as though Algerians are not really very engaged in these new communication forums...
Fayçal Métaoui: The cost of a computer is still prohibitive for the average Algerian family of modest income struggling with galloping inflation and burdensome expenses (rent, electricity, gas...). High speed Internet access is equally expensive (between 25 and 40 euros/month). Young people often go to cyber cafés, which are widely available in Algeria and where you can get online for a moderate fee (less than 1 euro/hour). But young urbans have better access to cyber cafés than those living in the country. The problem isn't so much one of a lack of democracy or free expression. Algeria is one of the few Arab countries that doesn't censure the Internet, where there is no filtering or police control over content. That it not the case in Tunisia, Libya or Saudi Arabia.
This is quite remarkable for Algeria, where there is a tremendous lag in multimedia growth at every level. That said, YouTube, Dailymotion and Facebook are increasingly being taken over by young people who want to express their pain, their anger, their frustration, but also celebrate their love, their football club. The gay community, which has become increasingly visible, has also built up quite a presence in these spaces - as much of a presence as those opposed to the regime of President Bouteflika. People have started up Facebook groups open to anyone who says "Definitely not" to a third mandate.
APN: In Europe and certain Arab countries, we've seen the emergence of a number of Internet sites exploiting video (blogs, Facebook, Dailymotion) that now compete directly with traditional print newspapers. Have you witnessed a similar trend in Algeria?
Fayçal Métaoui: Print newspapers are not yet in direct competition with online editions. Video on the web has not really taken off. It's a question of time and means. Shooting with video on the street or in a public place is strictly controlled. You need a permit for everything... Newspapers like El Watan have incorporated video into their online editions, but there aren't yet any local service providers who can feed professional quality images to the site. El Watan has signed a contract with Agence France-Presse (AFP) to supply video images to the site. Our plan is to eventually produce our own images, based on national news stories, but the technical structures are not yet in place.
APN: Are these new multimedia technologies (blogs, Facebook, Dailymotion) threatening print media in Algeria? If so, how?
Fayçal Métaoui: For the moment, the new media do not pose a great threat to newspapers. In Algeria, radio and television are under complete state control. Free expression is very limited. With the Internet, young Algerians can get around the restrictions by producing their own news stories. But they are always crude, rough, erratic pieces... We don't yet have a professional site, like Rue89 [French news website and political forum created by former Libération journalists] capable of inflicting some serious damage on the print media, although sites like "Tout sur l'Algérie" are starting to shake things up for editorial staff at local dailies with their exclusive scoops. This site sometimes reminds newspapers, which are generally held in high regard, of their weaknesses, their failure to adapt.
APN: Does El Watan plan to give over more space to these new multimedia in the future?
Fayçal Métaoui: Yes. You can't escape them. El Watan, like other newspapers, must adapt to changing information technologies. Our population is made up of mostly young people. They are more tuned in to these new media. Newspapers that wish to remain in the running must incorporate these facts into any future development strategies.
APN: Having lost the economic war, is Algeria now about to lose the multimedia war?
Fayçal Métaoui: In the multimedia "war", Algeria is on a par with Third World nations: deficient in its mastery of new information technologies, lacking in skill and talent. We can change this in the future if we adopt and implement effective scientific research programmes. Algerian universities are lagging behind. They need to upgrade their [technological] proficiency if they wish to modernise. The same thing goes for industry. Making multimedia a priority can also be a strategic political choice. This is not yet the case in Algeria.