Rights groups accuse some authoritarian governments of using the coronavirus pandemic as a pretext to further limit free expression. But in the North African country of Algeria, the trend is partly going the other way.
As brand names go, Radio Corona Internationale or RCI is probably in a league of its own. Launched last month on Facebook and Soundcloud, it offers a mix of music, news and commentary in Arabic and French. Founder Abdallah Benadouda says the idea came during an online get-together with friends.
‘We were talking about music, we were exchanging ideas and I said, ‘my God, this is something we can do. Instead of just streaming music, let’s create a radio show," he said.
Radio Corona’s tone is light and cynical. Benadouda says it tries not to criticize the government directly, while still addressing sensitive subjects.
“We talk about dictator[ship], we talk about freedom of speech, we talk about people in jail. We criticize the action of the government in other ways,” he said.
The recipe seems to be working. A growing audience of thousands now listens to Radio Corona’s twice-weekly broadcasts — which mirror Algeria’s twice-weekly anti-government street protests during pre-coronavirus days.
The broadcasts are happening as rights groups accuse authorities of censoring some independent media, and arresting several high-profile activists and journalists in recent weeks.
Reporters Without Borders’ North Africa director Souhaieb Khayati ticks off a few of them — including RSF correspondent Khaled Drareni.
Khayati considers Radio Corona the perfect answer to what he calls the absurdity and arbitrariness of the Algerian regime.
Founder Benadouda has had his own brush-ups with authorities. He fled his homeland in 2014, after being harassed for his reporting. He’s now based in Rhode Island.
He says Radio Corona is about more than COVID-19. It’s also the voice of the Hirak protest movement, although he may keep its moniker.
“Radio Corona won’t stop after the crisis," he said. "What we are now living with this virus — it’s something we won’t forget. So why not keep the name?”
Besides, he says, there are other political viruses to tackle once this pandemic is over.