April 09, 1999 — Since political violence erupted in 1992, Algeria has been one of the most difficult countries in the world for foreign journalists to work. For several years, Algerian authorities have enforced a policy of providing mandatory escorts for foreign reporters, thus severely curtailing the ability to effectively investigative the country’s ongoing civil war. Reporters note that the presence of escorts, among other things, has prevented them from conducting sensitive interviews and meeting with opposition figures. The government’s ongoing restrictions on the foreign press, coupled with the absence of foreign news outlets in the country-only Agence France-Presse maintains a bureau in Algiers-have contributed to the dearth of detailed information about the Algerian conflict. In 1998, the BBC noted that the lack of on the ground reporting “has made it increasingly difficult to know what is going on inside Algeria. News organizations are forced to take unconfirmed reports from Algerian newspapers at face value, even if they do it with a touch of skepticism.”
The Algerian government has asserted that security escorts are essential for foreign journalists’ protection. Indeed, during the first half of the decade, Algeria was the most dangerous country in the world to practice journalism. CPJ has documented that 58 reporters and editors were killed by suspected militants between 1993-1996. Yet by the government’s own accounts, in recent years the country’s security situation has improved markedly, asserting that “terrorism” has become a “residual” phenomenon. Foreign reporters who travel to Algeria increasingly describe mandatory security escorts as a mechanism of government control-to monitor and restrict the reporting and movements of journalists-rather than a means of protection.
In April 1998, then-Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, in an address to the Algerian senate, rejected complaints that the work of foreign journalists was being impeded in Algeria, saying “We have nothing to hide.” One month earlier, in March 1998, a delegation from the Paris-based World Association of Newspapers had secured unequivocal pledges from former Communications Minister Habib Chawki Hamraoui that foreign journalists would be able to refuse armed escorts within a matter of “weeks or months.” To date, this pledge has not been fulfilled and foreign reporters continue to chafe under restrictions on their movement.
The following are excerpts taken from CPJ interviews with foreign correspondents who have worked in Algeria and from press reports filed by journalists reporting from the country. They describe, up close, some of the restrictions that foreign correspondents face on the ground in Algeria. Additional comments from reporters will be updated on CPJ’s website.
The Journalists Speak
“Our CNN team got the message when we arrived at Algiers airport last October. We were met by a neatly dressed man named Khaled who welcomed us politely. He was one of our ‘guides,’ he said…He sure was. Khaled was at the elevator when we got up each morning, with us all day and evening, and at the elevator when we went to bed.
“Whenever we traveled outside the hotel, Khaled was joined by a team of several others with bulging waistlines…At least two vehicles were with us at all times. And moving around town was a circus. Khaled insisted on checking out first even the pastry stores we visited-and the coffee shops. I’ve been in many troubled countries over many years, but never have I been so rigorously ‘protected.’ Now there are clearly risks in Algeria: The civil war has been terribly brutal. But in fact we discovered that Algiers’ reputation as the most dangerous city in the world was probably no longer deserved.
“We endeavored to talk with the outlawed Muslim political organizations. We would arrange interviews by phone and then take off in our convoy, but we never did reach our destinations. Our guides just couldn’t find those addresses, it seems, no matter how hard they searched…It was clearly censorship by access denied.”
–Peter Arnett of CNN on his investigative trip to Algeria in October 1998
“I’d been given a minder and clashed vigorously with the Ministry of Information people. At the beginning, we were holed in one of the hotels and denied from going to the St. George Hotel. I couldn’t go out when I wanted. I had tried to meet with opposition political parties but couldn’t.
“We were severely limited, curtailed in our movements to report freely. It was explained as essential for our protection. There were many organized trips and we were limited in our ability to talk to people…You could go out individually, but with two or three people [escorts]…Once we went up to the (Kabyle region). It was ludicrous. We went with an armed escort and a truck of soldiers. I thought it was largely overblownŠOne was circumscribed in his reporting.”
–Roger Cohen, correspondent for The New York Times, describing conditions during his trip to Algeria in late 1996
“Any real enterprise reporting in Algeria into the truly pressing issues of the last decade is virtually impossible. They still assign bodyguards to you when you leave the hotel. It’s impossible to leave the hotel without them.
“When I was there, a BBC and French reporter ‘escaped.’ From the reaction of the security people, you would have thought there was a prison break. You can conclude that their concern is hardly to protect you but to control you. Their real purpose is to see where you go. It has an inhibiting effect. You can’t meet with Islamists who are in jail or under house arrest. But there are others who are not under house arrest or in jail-they are in this sort of gray zone. But of course they don’t want to see you if you arrive at their door with four armed guards.
“We were allowed to go into the Triangle of Death…to Bentalha, Rais, and a third place. We were sent with four Land Cruisers with the gendarme nationale, who have a hugely inhibiting effect on people you talk to. We spent two to three hours there. The people (in the villages) talk about how they were attacked by terrorists, but they decline to give any details. We turned back to Algiers realizing that we weren’t going to get anything. They [the people] had a pretty good idea [of who attacked them] but weren’t going to say anything with these goons present.”
–A foreign correspondent describing a recent trip to Algeria
“Getting the visa is not the main point. If you have a visa, then you are forced to stay in a hotel and cannot leave without police protection. You cannot move freely. For those with a visa it is impossible to move freely. But I had accreditation and could move around freely. Many times in the past when I had a visa, I left the country because there was no way you could work. No one can work when you are locked up in a hotel. If you have an appointment scheduled, you might wait two to three hours in the hotel until your escorts arrange a car. They force you to fight for a visa and then, finally, when you get there it’s [not worth it] since you can’t do your work.”
–Enrique Cerveto, correspondent for the Spanish daily ABC
“The government only allows foreign journalists to visit Bentalha under heavy escort. Soldiers, their walkie-talkies spitting static, spread out in the dusty, unpaved alleys of the cinder block village…The hotel was basically an armed camp. You couldn’t walk down the street. You could only leave in a taxi. And you had three armed guards in a car behind you. It’s terrible to say it, but they organized basically what amounted to tours of the massacre sites. When we went that day to Bentalha, we also visited, as it appears in that story, a cemetery. We were in two minivans which were painted with the words “Touring Club of Algiers.” And you can imagine getting out of a minivan like this while people are mourning their dead. It was the most surreal reporting experience I’ve ever had.”
–National Public Radio correspondent Sarah Chayes reporting for the program “Weekly Edition,” January 17, 1998
“It was preposterous in terms of reporting.”
–A U.S. reporter describing armed escorts who accompanied journalists to massacre sites in June 1997
“I didn’t feel monitored especially [when doing interviews], but it was impossible to go anywhere on my own.”
–A U.S. journalist who visited Algeria in 1998
“We were given Ministry of Interior ‘minders,’ which they use to keep tabs on foreign journalists. I’d love to go again, but I hear that the authorities often refuse to grant visas to those who’ve written about them in a less than glowing fashion. The government doesn’t want people like us there for very long, so they probably only give out limited stay visas.”
–A European journalist who reported from Algiers in 1998
“Security for the foreign journalists arriving in the capital is so heavy as to make the threat almost abstract. Armed plainclothes police grab you at the airport before you have even walked from the aircraft to the terminal building, escorting you to a hotel ringed by soldiers and gendarmes. The escort remains with you whatever your destination. Even a journey out of the building to buy some cigarettes involves a three-man guard riding shotgun. The police and their pistols are replaced by a posse of soldiers with assault rifles for a trip to the entrance of the Casbah, a hotbed of GIA support whose centre seems lost even to the army. The chance for spontaneous interviews is diluted to say the least.”
–Anthony Loyd writing in the Times of London, October 25, 1997
Difficulties in Obtaining Visas
Over the years, foreign journalists have faced considerable difficulty in securing visas to report from Algeria. In several cases, journalists have gone months-sometimes years-without receiving a reply to their individual visa requests. Some believe that they have been blacklisted by authorities in response to what they have deemed as the journalists’ unfavorable coverage of Algerian affairs. Others, who have no reason to suspect government reprisal, are at a loss to explain why they have been prevented from obtaining a journalist visa. The following are recently documented cases of journalists who have been unable to secure visas for work in Algeria. A number of other journalists, who currently have visa requests pending with the Algerian government to cover the April 15 presidential elections, declined to have their names made public for fear of jeopardizing the outcome. In two of these cases, the journalists have failed to receive replies from the Algerian government to their numerous visa requests over the span of several months. Additional cases of journalists who have been unable to obtain visas to report from Algeria will be updated on CPJ’s website.
José Garcon who has covered Algeria for more than ten years for the French-language daily Libération, was unable to obtain a visa from the Algerian government between 1993 and 1997 despite repeated requests. All of her requests went unanswered, leading the journalist to abandon future attempts. In 1997, authorities formally denied her a visa without explanation when she had requested to travel to Algiers with a French politician.
Roger Cohen, a foreign correspondent for The New York Times who has covered Algeria in recent years, was unable to obtain a visa in 1997 despite persistent attempts. Cohen had reported from Algiers in late 1996, and applied for another visa in 1997. He received no reply from the Algerian government. “I did hear from diplomats that the Algerian government was not keen on letting me in,” said Cohen. Cohen suspects that a story he wrote in December 1996 about the country’s political situation and its gas and oil production in the southern desert (“State of Fear: In Algeria, Oil and Islam Make a Volatile Mixture” The New York Times, December 28, 1996) was the reason.
Enrique Cerveto, a correspondent for the Spanish daily ABC who is based in Rabat, has not secured a visa to report from Algeria since November 1998. In late 1998, he attempted to return and was told by the Ministry of Information that he could not return to Algeria, even as a tourist. No explanation was given, and Cerveto, despite being one of the few foreign journalists to have accreditation in Algeria, was prevented from entering the country. According to Cerveto, Algerian officials later told him privately that the reason he was denied was because he had written articles critical of President Liamine Zeroual’s former adviser, Muhammad Betchine. Cerveto currently has another visa request pending with the Algerian government.
Jean Pierre Tuquoi a correspondent for the French daily Le Monde, has not received a visa to report from Algeria for nearly a year, despite what he estimates is over ten requests made to authorities. No reason has been given for the failure to respond. Tuqoui most recently applied for a visa in March 1999 to cover the presidential election but was unable to secure a visa. Tuquoi believes that he has been singled out in response to a 1998 article he wrote referring to President Liamine Zeroual’s previous marriage.” (Posted 5/21/99)
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