Algiers, October 28, 1998 -- A delegation from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called on the government yesterday to adopt concrete recommendations to improve press freedom in Algeria. CPJ began its first fact-finding mission to Algeria to investigate press freedom conditions earlier this month.
In a two-hour meeting on Tuesday with Communications Minister Habib Chawki Hamraoui, the delegation comprised of Peter Arnett, CNN correspondent and member of CPJ's board of directors; CPJ Middle East program coordinator Joel Campagna; and Kamel Eddine Labidi, a consultant to the mission urged the government to locate and ensure the safety of Djamil Eddine Fahassi and Aziz Bouabdallah, two journalists who disappeared on May 7, 1995, and April 12, 1997, respectively.
Both Fahassi, a reporter with the state-run radio station Alger Chaine III, and Bouabdallah, a reporter for the daily Al-Alam al-Siyassi, were apprehended by men presumed to be security agents. Their whereabouts are still unknown.
In response to the delegation's recommendations, Hamraoui said, "I pledge the Algerian government's commitment to openness and the rule of law and democracy." He also guaranteed that newspapers could establish private printing facilities without government interference, and that "a new bill will soon end the state's monopoly on advertising."
Hamraoui promised that next week the ban on foreign publications entering Algeria would be ended and that the weekly French magazine Jeune Afrique would be on newsstands.
The delegation also expressed deep concern about the recent suspensions
of the daily newspapers El-Watan and Le Matin, which
have been refused services by the state-owned printer since October
17, on the pretext of outstanding debts. Arnett and Campagna said
they feared that the printer's actions stemmed from the newspapers'
recent criticisms of government officials. They called on the minister
to exert efforts to resolve these suspensions and to establish clear
guidelines governing relations between newspapers and the state-owned
printer, including procedures for handling debt.
During the meeting, Arnett noted recent positive developments for the Algerian press, including the state's abolishment in December 1997 of official "reading committees" used to censor newspaper coverage of civil strife; the enhanced freedom of reporters to report on these subjects; and the proliferation of Algerian newspapers on the Internet.
But Arnett stressed CPJ's concern on two matters in particular. "We must forcefully raise the issues of the two missing journalists Djamil Eddine Fahassi and Aziz Bouabdallah," he said. "And we believe that the government control of printing presses has allowed officials to pressure newspapers. There are no clear guidelines, and the printer can use his discretion to close newspapers. The Algerian government's immediate resolution of these two issues would be seen by journalists as a positive step forward for freedom of the press in Algeria."
The CPJ delegation also called on the Algerian government to take the following steps:
End state monopoly of the distribution of public-sector advertising (e.g., by state-owned companies) to newspapers;
End legal harassment of newspapers through use of criminal defamation statutes to prosecute newspapers for their publication of news and opinion;
Publicly state a commitment to and support the formation of newspapers and other media representing a diversity of opinions, even those critical of the government;
Permit newspapers banned by decree or under emergency law to resume publication; and
Facilitate the process of obtaining visas for journalists wishing to work in Algeria.