Note: all links are in French, unless otherwise stated.
Launched in November 2008, Algérie-Focus is an online interactive site. Following the basic premises of Web 2.0, Algérie-Focus features a wide range of multimedia offerings, allowing its readers to interact in real time with each other as well as with the guests of the site. Algérie-Focus provides members of the local Algerian community as well as those of the Algerian diaspora and the Maghreb with a platform for exchanging and sharing information, and also for debate.
Thalia Rahme of Global Voices interviews Fayçal Anseur, founder of the site, in order to gain a better understanding of Algérie-Focus's goals and to review the state of citizen media in Algeria.
Thalia Rahme: How and when did the idea for Algérie-Focus arise? And what makes Algérie-Focus's distinctive and different from other similar media?
Faycal Anseur: Algerie-Focus was launched on November 1st, 2008. We had a tremendous challenge to take up: proving that we were able to create an online Algerian journal with few financial and human resources (150 euros as start-up capital, five journalists and one webmaster). Still, we believed we could succeed against all odds in attracting readers with fresh and original content, produced according to the premises of new technology.
Given that from the start our editorial choice rested upon reporting news in a similar fashion to traditional media outlets such as newspapers and magazines, i.e. with analyses, interviews, etc., we managed to secure the loyalty of a diverse readership, ranging from students to executives.
We offer decompartmentalized news, i.e. less “Algero-Algerian” news and more “globalo-Algerian, if I may put it that way. We try to offer content that is in line with the spirit of online philosophy, a window open to the world, with its interconnections and transformations. Algerian netizens are gradually acclimatizing to this reality, i.e. that Algeria is not an isolated village but rather part of a whole, and therefore that decisions taken by some (in the developed world), impact directly or on indirectly on the future of others (mainly in developing and Third World countries).
Algérie-Focus also presents exclusive news as well as about 40 or so special topics illustrated with interviews, guests, cartoons and surveys. We have offered a platform to well-known personalities who might be considered controversial or even censored or banned elsewhere. We might not necessarly agree with our guests, but our main goal is to inform, to trigger debate and resolve crises. In short, to promote freedom of expression by humbly performing acts of traditional journalisn while encouraging citizen journalism. The reader becomes a player by being offered the opportunity to pose questions to our guests via our interactive forums and to participate in the editorial process and contribute through our op-ed section.
Nevertheless, given the lack of financial support, since the site is boycotted by most advertisers—a predictable consequence of its independent editorial line—our staff today is only composed of two journalists: myself, writing from France and a friend living in Algeria.
TR: What is the current state of the Algerian blogosphere and social/citizen media in Algeria? Were those media influenced by the Arab Spring? Are we witnessing their emergence?
FA: The Algerian blogosphere is expanding; however, its growth remains insufficient and centered on certain mainstream media outlets at the expense of others. According to a new report published by a group comprising Tunisian researcher Yamina Mathlouthi of the Institut de recherche sue le Maghreb contemporain, and others, Algeria is ranked 6th in the Arab world with regard to Facebook use. 2.1 million Algerians are subscribed to the service, which puts Algeria in 52nd place in its network of users, according to a study by Younes Grar, an Algerian ICT expert. It is obvious that the Arab Spring acted as a catalyst and that this wind of liberation created a dynamic in the Algerian population who, like their neighbors, yearn for change, progress and openness.
However, there are many challenges. The numbers of netizens remains relatively low, compared to the overall population (there are more than 36 millions inhabitants in Algeria). Internet penetration in Algerian is low due to the high cost of the service (approx 2300 DA or US$31/month, compared with a minimum monthly wage of 15 000 DA or US$201), and the state holds the monopoly on Internet service provision. The Internet is a new medium in a Algeria that is closed to the world. Algerians need time to adapt and make up for lost time and above all to demand the basic right to free expression that's been denied them until now.
That said, the new generation of 20- to 30-year olds, which forms the majority in Algeria, is catching up and assimilating the tools for optimal use of this media, especially through observing their contemporaries in Egypt and Tunisia.
TR: What do you think distinguishes Algerian social media from others in the Arab World? What are their topics of interest? Are they are focused on local news or do they also address the latest developments on the regional and international scene? What is their language of choice?
FA: Algerian media are newborn, they are still in the apprenticeship phase. Algerian netizens speak a lot, which is normal when one has been deprived for so long of outlets for expression. Topics are varied but revolve mainly around Algeria and its problems. Some are are already speaking out, and with time, everyone will learn to listen to each other so as to get along and then, one day, act.
Arabic language is the primary language in Algeria and Arabic-speaking sites are the most visited ones. French-speaking netizens are mainly present on Facebook, the ”in” place for the time being.
TR: What are the challenges facing citizen and social media? Is there any form of pressure from the government on bloggers or Twitter users? Has anyone been arrested because of online activity? Do politicians also use those platforms to communicate with the public?
FA: The first challenge lies in continuing to express ourselves and most of all in organizing ourselves in a way that will prevent political manipulation. Abderaouf Madani, a member of the national committee to protect unemployed people's rights, was arrested last September in Ouargla, a city in the south of Algeria, while shooting a video of protests in support of the unemployed held in the city's administrative complex. Updates posted via smartphone and the Internet have so far been able to circumvent censorship but the authorities are aware that, one way or another, the information is going to end up online.
With the Arab Spring, the Algerian government has become conscious of the importance of the Internet as a free medium and of the potential risks. The government created legislation in attempt to contain it, restrict it and even control it. Others countries have tried that before (Tunisia, Egypt, Syria) and it didn't work. However, the state retains the monopoly on Internet access to and can resort to filtering of certain opposition sites. One can cite many cases of ”technical censorship”.
Deprived of access to national media, and even sometimes to private media, the opposition is trying to organize itself on the web. Government politicians, as well official opposition are not too fond of this medium, the workings of which they don't really understand. They still use the mainstream media that reach the majority of Algerians.
TR: What is the attitude of traditional media toward those sites? Are there journalists that also use those media? In other countries, for instance, newspapers have their own blogs where their journalists are invited to contribute?
FA: Algerian journalists are not the ones who have driven the dynamic of online media. They have been overtaken by their readers. There are perhaps 20 blogs run by journalists; the majority are merely following the movement. Journalists are present on Facebook, but they rarely interact with their readers. We often slam the Algerian intelligentsia for its resignation, and the Internet is increasingly highlighting their absence.
Quand algerie-focus.com inaugure le journalisme interactif (El Watan)
Algerie-Focus.com sur El Watan. (Interview)