FEATURE-Algeria state media opens up as Arab protests rage

Tue Feb 22, 2011 11:58am GMT

* Bouteflika orders state media to cover opposition

* Algerian government fears Egypt- or Tunisia-style uprising

* Algeria to lift a 19-year-old state of emergency soon

By Lamine Chikhi

ALGIERS, Feb 22 (Reuters) - When reporters from Algeria's state news agency arrived to cover an opposition rally on Feb. 19, they were greeted with surprise.

After all, it was the first time in years the agency, long a mouthpiece of the North African oil producer's government, had attended a march critical of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

"It's been a long time! Where have you been?" people quipped. "I can't believe it!"

Fearing a wave of Arab world uprisings that started in neighbouring Tunisia and has toppled two governments so far, Algeria has ordered state-owned media to cover the opposition.

Street protests sweeping in the region have mostly centered around human rights, poverty, and political freedoms.

Several Algerian towns including the capital experienced days of rioting in January over rising food prices in which at least two people were killed. Since then demonstrators have organised rallies inspired by overthrows in Tunisia and Egypt.

Bouteflika, seeking to prevent opposition calls for protests from building momentum, has promised more democratic freedoms, cuts in food prices, and ordered new job-creation measures. Algeria has also said it would lift a state of emergency, in force for 19 years, by the end of the month.

"We received clear instructions to cover opposition events," a senior journalist at Algerian state television said.

"It is not easy because the opposition is very mad at us, but we have to do the job," the journalist, who asked not to be named, told Reuters.

Algerian state media, which includes television, radio and several daily newspapers, has earned a reputation as a government propaganda tool.

Television news bulletins typically open with messages sent or received by the president and provide a positive spin on government affairs and issues in the country.

Algeria's independent press, perhaps the freest in the Arab world, offers a stark contrast of coverage critical of Bouteflika and the military.

So it was big surprise for Algerian viewers to see a top Algerian human rights activist, calling for a change of government, on their screens this past Saturday night.

Ali Yahia Abdenour, chairman of the Algerian league for human rights, was interviewed by state-owned television while marching against the government saying "it is our right to march, we want change, and we want democracy".

On Sunday, government daily El Moudjahid carried a front page photograph of the march entitled "the protesters dispersed in calm". The authorities had refused permission for the march, citing public order concerns, but said the opposition could instead rally in an officially sanctioned venue.

"It is a miracle! Ali Yahia Abdenour on Algerian TV criticising the government," political analyst Mohamed Lagab told Reuters.

The protest, the second in two weeks, was organised by human rights groups, trade unionists and opposition activists, but did not include members of Algeria's main opposition group.

Unrest in Algeria could have implications for the world economy since it is a major oil and gas exporter, but analysts say an Egypt- or Tunisia-style revolt is unlikely because the government can use its energy wealth to placate most grievances. (Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Louise Ireland)