April 27, 2001
The Honorable Members of Parliament
c/o The Honorable Abdul Qader Ben Saleh
Speaker of Parliament
VIA FACSIMILE +213-21-744-344
Honorable Members of Parliament:
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a non-governmental organization of journalists devoted to upholding press freedom worldwide, is concerned about draft Penal Code amendments, now under discussion in Parliament, that would substantially increase criminal penalties for defamation.
In our view, the draft legislation, as published in the daily El-Khabar on April 15, constitutes a grave threat to press freedom in Algeria. If passed, it will significantly restrict the internationally-recognized right of journalists to report news and opinion freely.
The amendments were proposed by the Algerian government, which accuses the local press of persistently libeling public officials and state institutions. They prescribe lengthy jail sentences and stiff fines for individuals and publications found guilty of defaming public officials and government institutions, among others. Existing jail sentences would be lengthened from two to three years, and fines would reach the exorbitant sum of 5,000,000 dinars (about US$65,000).
Among the proposed amendments is draft article 144, which prescribes between one and three years in prison and/or a fine of between 100,000 dinars and 1,000,000 dinars (US$1,400-13,500) for "insulting the President of the Republic." The provision holds writers, publishers, and responsible editors liable for insult. Publications would face a fine of up to 5,000,000 dinars for the same offense.
The same article would impose from two months to two years imprisonment and/or a fine of up to 500,000 (about US$7,000) for anyone who "insults a judge, employee, leader, or general officer." Draft article 146 provides similar punishments for "insult, defamation, slander, and humiliation" against "the Parliament or one of its chambers, or against the courts or the judicial councils or against the National Popular Army or any general institution or other regular entities."
Repeat offenders face doubled sentences for all these offences.
It is widely accepted in democratic societies that journalists should never face criminal prosecution because of material they publish or news or views they express. Civil defamation laws provide adequate recourse for individuals who feel that their reputations have been harmed.
The fear of imprisonment stifles democratic debate, and thus has no place in an open society. The same is true for exorbitant fines such as those outlined in the proposed law, which could easily be used to shut down dissenting publications and would encourage self-censorship.
Finally, defamation laws exist to protect individuals against malicious libel. Such protection is not warranted for state institutions such as the army and the presidency. Unlike individuals, institutions do not have reputations that can be damaged by criticism, whether founded or unfounded.
We thank you for your attention to these important matters.
Ann K. Cooper