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Algeria Interface interviews
MOHAMED BENCHICOU, MANAGING DIRECTOR OF LENGUAGE-FRENCH
© Algeria Interface | Jeudi 11 octobre 2001
Mohamed Benchicou is one of the highest profiles in the Algerian press. At 49 is managing editor of French-language daily, Le Matin, which he helped found in 1991. He has worked for the country's official news agency, APS, the now defunct news weekly, Algérie-Actualité and the staunchly pro-regime El Moudjahid, which he quit in 1989 to revive a paper called, Alger Républicain. That was two years before the reformist government of prime minister Hamrouche passed a law easing restrictions on independent, privately-owned publications. The unflinchingly anti-Islamist Le Matin prints four regional editions – east, west, centre and Kabylia – boasts a total circulation of 140,000. It is one of Algeria's most widely read dailies and last year recorded a profit of DZD4 million ($52,000) for total sales of over DZD400 million. Its financial strength ensures it independence that Mohamed Benchicou uses to voice his beliefs.
Algeria Interface : Le Matin is 10 years old and so is the civil war. Would you like to draw a parallel ?
Mohamed Benchicou : Yes, there's a natural kind of parallel. We came into being when Algeria was discovering freedom and democracy and their price. All sorts of problems and conflict raised their heads. We were there to observe and report on the tragic events that then unfolded. Our experience of these last 10 years has been that of the press in its entirety. Most papers are 10 years old, as is Algerian democracy, if you can call the decade which followed the abolition of the single party democracy.
Algeria Interface : If Le Matin didn't exist, would you create it today in the current situation ?
Mohamed Benchicou : No. The need to express oneself or one's political convictions are not enough. You need to really want to found a newspaper. I no longer have that desire… Le Matin is not governed by political considerations, let that be clear. At the time  there was a special situation and a sense of frustration. We had all been in the MJA (Algerian Journalists' Movement, independent journalists' union founded in 1988) and we'd made pledges that we had to fulfil
Algeria Interface : Has having an independent press helped Algeria develop or has it enshrined the conflicts that riddle the country ?
Mohamed Benchicou : When I hear that the press has fanned the flames of Islamism and events in Kabylia I don't really understand… The press doesn't create events, it reports on them and it can only survive in a transparent society. The grievance against us is not that we informed, but that we failed to conceal. Algeria's press was one step ahead of society on the road to democracy and the free press is politically more advanced than the country's political organisations… None of Algeria's politicians talk to the media… they still belong to the single party culture… it's not out of political caution, but because they are congenitally backward… Take official attitudes towards terrorism here and abroad. President Bouteflika offers his condolences to Switzerland for the shooting at a local parliament and ignores the massacres going on here. Even if we had five television channels they'd all show nothing but cartoons. The printed press is just as backward. The one thing that most press bosses have in common is that they want to become information minister.
Algeria Interface : Violence against journalists has stopped. Do you think it could resume ?
Mohamed Benchicou : There's no doubt it could. Have all the contradictions in Algerian society been resolved? No. So all what's already happened can happen again. By the same token, the regime has more or less stopped imprisoning journalists… but if interest are at stake it'll start again tomorrow. There is still no mutual acceptance and no common project for society.
Algeria Interface : Who do you think was behind the murders of journalists ?
Mohamed Benchicou : I don't think there's a shadow of doublt over who the murders were. I might be the most naive of all Algerians, but for me political assassinations are typical of Islamists against what they consider stooges of the regime.
Algeria Interface : Five Algerian journalists are still missing. Why do so many papers like Le Matin still refuse to talk about it ?
Mohamed Benchicou : The five journalists have sparked a campaign whose aim is not to elucidate the mystery but to embarrass the regime… I've got no reason to feel guilty over not talking about these missing journalists. Fahassi [one of the missing journalists] did his stint in the training camps in southern Algeria, just like any other FIS activist. Just because he's a journalist why should he be spared the same fate as other Islamists?… Le Matin covers the issue of the missing people issue as it sees fit and we don't want anybody giving us lessons. I have more in common with the families of the missing who demonstrate here in Algiers than with demonstrators in Paris where they orchestrate campaigns to undermine the secular regime. I don't have any scores to settle with the regime apart from its moves to bring the FIS back into politics. I don't believe the military are the only ones responsible for stopping the electoral process in 1992. I was part of it, like many others. We're all responsible, and I face up to my responsibilities.
Algeria Interface : You've clearly come out in favour of Algeria's generals over 1992. Don't you think it would help make them more credible if those who got rich illegally or by using their power were brought to justice ?
Mohamed Benchicou : If a single general was charged with corruption, I'd be the first to write about it… If cases come to light with evidence to prove the charges, we journalists will do our work. But the problem is that generals have not pulled out of politics, they've clung on to power and they're out of kilter in a society that has passed them by. Instead of letting society express itself, they've kept their monopoly over power. And they've allowed Islamism to flourish… But the main grievance against the generals is not corruption but that they cancelled the elections in January 1992… This fixation on the generals is designed to get Bouteflika and the generals to turn back the clock to just before January 1992.
Algeria Interface : Reading Le Matin, one sometimes almost gets the impression that you're for an allied intervention in Algeria to wipe out terrorism once and for all.
Mohamed Benchicou : You can't wipe out terrorism by sending US troops into Algeria because Algerian terrorism is just a link in an international network. It would naive to believe that eliminating Zouabri or Hattab would eliminate terrorism. There's a worldwide strategy. See how fast the GIA find men and arms. We haven't given enough though to what Bush meant when he said the war would be longs. Spot interventions won't solve anything. We've got to realise it's on a world scale and it's a world fight.
Algeria Interface : Still communist and anti-American ?
Mohamed Benchicou : It's a mindset that was a key component in our development and outlook and there's no way we're going to deny where we are coming from.