In Algeria, people start reading newspapers from the back. The last page, or the caricature page, attracts readers and competes with journalistic articles. It only requires a few codes and some reading between the lines to summarize the reality of a situation.
In a country where the illiteracy rate has reached 13%, images are very influential tools for criticizing current affairs whether political, social, economic, or cultural. A quick look at international reports on freedom of the press in Algeria reveals the sad reality that the country ranks 129th, 10 places down from 2015 according to Reporters Without Borders. In such conditions, a subtle sarcastic drawing can subvert red lines much more than explicit words.
Since independence, caricature art in Algeria has had an exciting and controversial history. Many artists have crossed lines and incited public opinion. Army generals, leaders of terrorist organizations, as well as public figures from all sides, have all been the subjects of drawings. Even the president of the republic and the speakers of parliaments, have not escaped caricatures.
Between censorship and absolute freedom
Under president Boumediene, the Ministry of Communications was in charge of banning certain information and setting the red lines. Then came president Chadli who gave the press an unprecedented level of absolute freedom. During this period, more than 10 newspapers were issued. It was known as the golden age of the media in Algeria.
Many famous caricature artists appeared during that time namely M'hamed Issiakhem and others. And then came Selim who is considered to be the father of post-independence caricature art. He appeared in the french speaking newspaper “Ahdath Al Jaza’ir”, and the satirical magazine “Mqaydish”.
Other artists became famous after that, such as Haroun, Melwah Qassi, and Bouamama Mazari. But the bloody period that Algeria went through had a toll on caricature art, especially with the wave of assassinations that targeted journalists and public figures in the cultural sector. Many artists were pushed to move to France, some of whom are still active, such as Jamal Noun, and Hisham Baba Ali.
More than just a drawing
In May 2001, the Algerian parliament adopted what was known as the “Dilem Decree”, which made insulting the president punishable by 2 to 12 months in prison and a fine of 50 000 to 250 000 Algerian Dinars (450 to 2300 USD). The same goes for insulting the army or the parliament. However, the punishment is not limited to the person who draws the caricature, but includes anyone who publishes or shares the drawing.
Zalikha Belarbi, an activist in the Algerian association for the defense of human rights, was fined 100 000 Algerian Dinars (900 USD) for re-posting on Facebook a photoshopped image featuring Algerian political figures including president Abdelaziz Bouteflika in postures that reference the famous Turkish soap opera “the Sultan’s Harem”.
So what are the most sensitive topics that journalists avoid while caricature artists don't? While the perspectives might differ, below are some of the controversial topics that are most commonly present in the media and public discussions.
Since Independence, caricatures in Algeria have crossed many red lines that journalists do not dare to cross.
With 13% illiteracy, caricatures in Algeria are influential tools tackling sensitive issues from the president's health to terrorism
The great Mosque of Algeria
The Great Mosque did not escape the satire of caricatures shared by Algerians on social media. Its construction has been a controversial issue due to its extravagant cost, reaching 1.36 billion USD. The mosque is also supposed to be built on Bouzria hill, 365 meters above sea level, in a zone that geologists say is prone to earthquakes. The project faces very strong criticism as a waste of public funds that many think would be better spent on education, health, or other projects.
The national reconciliation
The reconciliation is ten years old, but remains a subject of much controversy and satire by caricature artists in Algeria. Many years since it was proposed by president Bouteflika in 2005 and voted in as a way to end terrorism in Algeria, it is still far from being implemented. Many victims of terrorism are still asking for the truth about what happened in the country, and many are still missing.
The economic crisis
Caricatures are bound to tackle the economy. After all, it is a crucial aspect of the lives of so many Algerians, especially since the fall of oil prices, the only source of income for the country, led to a financial crisis. Things only got worse with the government's austerity measures leading to a social explosion.
The president’s health
This is a topic that preoccupies people but presents a big challenge for the authorities. However, it has proven to be very inspiring for caricaturists. Bouteflika has ruled the country as president for 17 years and is now 79 years old. In 2005 he suffered from symptoms of stomach cancer. The state news agency announced that he had suffered from a passing brain stroke and needs some rest.
In 2014 he ran for the presidential elections on a wheelchair. The facts surrounding his health are a secret protected by excessive laws. This is why every time he disappears from the spotlights, people wonder where he went. These questions are then followed by rumors on the street and on social media. The official response, however, is always a standard: “The president is in good shape and performing his duties normally”, which reflects the political state of the country and presents great material for caricature artists.