Attacks on the Press 1999: Algeria

Since his controversial, unopposed April 15 election, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has raised public hopes of ending the brutal civil strife that has plagued this North African nation for eight years. Buoyed by the president’s efforts to promote national reconciliation, Algerians eagerly sought to resume their normal lives after years of bloodshed. For the country’s press, the tight government censorship that marked much of the past decade is over, along with the worst of the violence.

Algeria was once the most dangerous place in the world in which to practice journalism, with 58 reporters and editors murdered between 1993 and 1996. But three years have passed since the last assassination, and journalists seem more confident of their safety than at any other time since the conflict began. Questions remain, however. Although armed Islamist extremists are held responsible for most of the killings, Algerian journalists still suspect that the state may have been involved in some assassinations. To date, authorities have yet to prosecute anybody for killing a journalist and remain resistant to any independent international investigation into the murders. And despite his rhetoric of national reconciliation, President Bouteflika gave no indication that his government would seek to shed any light on this dark chapter in the history of the Algerian press.

Algerian authorities also remained silent about the cases of “disappeared” journalists Djamel Eddine Fahassi and Aziz Bouabdallah, who were abducted in 1995 and 1997, respectively, by men believed to be security agents. On May 6, 1995, four men carrying walkie-talkies seized Fahassi, a reporter for the state-run radio station Alger Cha”ne III and a contributor to several Algerian newspapers, near his home in the al-Harrache suburb of Algiers and pushed him into a waiting car. Prior to his abduction, Fahassi had been arrested on at least two occasions in response to his published criticisms of the government.

Bouabdallah, a reporter for the Arabic-language daily Al-Alam al-Siyassi, was abducted from his home in the Chevalier section of Algiers on April 12, 1997, by three armed men, who forced him into a waiting car. Several days later, the leading independent newspaper El-Watan reported that he was in police custody. Local sources told CPJ that Bouabdallah was being held in a detention facility and had been tortured. Neither Fahassi nor Bouabdallah has been seen since their abduction, and Algerian authorities have denied any knowledge of their arrest.

On May 6, 1999, the four-year anniversary of Fahassi’s “disappearance,” CPJ issued an appeal to President Bouteflika, calling on the Algerian leader to launch an independent and impartial investigation. “Djamel Fahassi and Aziz Bouabdallah must not be forgotten,” said CPJ’s executive director, Ann Cooper. “We call on President Bouteflika to demonstrate his commitment to press freedom and find out what has happened to these journalists so they can be returned to their families.”

The state continued to exert leverage over private newspapers through its ownership of the country’s main printing houses. Over the years, state printers have often refused services to newspapers that criticized officials whose editorial policies offended the government. In 1998, several titles were forced off the market when their printer refused to service them on the pretext of their having outstanding debts. Although state printers appeared to ease their harassment of private papers in 1999, at least one paper was targeted. In May, the daily Demain L’AlgŽrie was denied printing services, allegedly because of unpaid debts. However, staff members contended that the action came in retaliation for their critical coverage of candidates running in the April presidential election. The newspaper was able to resume publishing through a small private printer.

In addition to its control over printing services, the state also wields considerable influence over the distribution of public-sector advertising and has used this power to punish newspapers critical of it by withholding advertising revenue from state-owned companies, which dominate the local economy.

Criminal-defamation and other restrictive laws remain on the books and are still used to punish critical reporting. Parliament’s efforts to amend the controversial Information Code of 1990, meanwhile, have so far failed. As a result, independent journalists still risk five- to 10-year jail sentences under highly subjective provisions that ban offenses such as publishing “false or misleading information” that harms “state security.” But on the whole, authorities seemed less eager than in past years to prosecute journalists under these laws.

The overt censorship of reporting on the political violence that marked much of the past decade now appears a thing of the past. Even so, Algeria’s press remained hampered by fear and self-censorship on crucial issues such as state human-rights abuses, the counter-insurgency war, official corruption, and the political views of the Islamist opposition. The dearth of reliable sources– journalists often rely on the army or security forces for information on security-related events–further limits news coverage of the civil conflict.

Authorities continued to restrict the ability of foreign media to report from Algeria. The government did grant visas to a number of foreign (mostly European) reporters who complained that they had previously been blacklisted by authorities because of their critical coverage of events inside the country. The scope for serious investigative reporting about political violence was limited, however, owing to the government’s strict policy of providing mandatory escorts for foreign reporters. Reporters described security escorts as a control mechanism rather than a means of protection. They complained that the presence of escorts prevented them from meeting with opposition figures or investigating human-rights issues.