Attacks on the Press 2000: Algeria

LATE IN THE YEAR, A SURGE OF POLITICAL VIOLENCE FURTHER DIMMED the prospects of President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika’s plan for national reconciliation and an end to Algeria’s nine years of civil strife. Particularly in Algiers and other cities, however, the country was far more peaceful than in previous years, and the intense government censorship and brutal murders of journalists that marked the height of the violence appeared to be a thing of the past.

Between 1993 and 1996, 58 reporters and editors were murdered in Algeria, along with numerous other media workers. While Islamist militants were blamed for most of the killings, many local journalists still suspect state involvement in some of the assassinations. The government’s failure to conduct open investigations of the killings, or to allow independent international inquiries, leaves many questions unanswered.

Ministry of Justice officials told the Paris-based press-freedom group Reporters sans Frontières that they had identified the killers of 20 journalists, and had sentenced 15 of them to death in absentia. The officials also claimed to have launched investigations in other cases, but it was difficult to verify their information.

The fate of “disappeared” journalists Djamel Eddine Fahassi and Aziz Bouabdallah remains unknown. Fahassi and Bouabdallah are presumed to have been abducted by state security agents in 1995 and 1997, respectively. Neither has been seen since, and Algerian authorities have denied any knowledge of their arrests. But because most mainstream Algerian journalists shy away from the sensitive topic of government human-rights abuses, and because both journalists were generally viewed, fairly or unfairly, as sympathetic to the outlawed Islamist opposition, their disappearances have failed to galvanize the mainly anti-Islamist local press.

In contrast, many Algerian journalists expressed vocal support for Tunisian journalist Taoufik Ben Brik’s hunger strike in April and May (see Tunisia section). “Algerian journalists feel more free to speak about strangers than about our own miseries,” Fahassi’s wife told the local newspaper Le Quotidien d’Oran. “We have to beg them to write and remember.”

Despite these challenges, Algeria still has one of the livelier presses in the Middle East. Algerians could choose between more than 30 daily newspapers last year, many of them stridently critical of state policy. The government no longer imposes tight censorship on information about political violence, as it did in the early years of its conflict with Islamist groups. But the local press has yet to recapture the ideological diversity of the early 1990s, before the regime shut down newspapers that were affiliated with or sympathetic to the Islamist opposition.

The Algerian press remained hampered by fear, self-censorship, ideological prejudice, and limited access to information on sensitive topics such as official corruption and human-rights abuses. Local newspapers avoided covering the views of the Islamist opposition or any direct criticism of senior generals. Given the difficulty of obtaining independent information about the murky war between Islamist rebels and the Algerian state, journalists were often forced to accept the government’s version of events.

The controversial Information Code of 1990 remains in effect, despite repeated pledges by the government to amend it. The law mandates jail sentences of five to 10 years for offenses such as publishing “false or misleading information” that harms “state security.” During the first half of the 1990s, it was a staple instrument in the state’s muzzling of the press.

Officials continued to use criminal libel laws against outspoken journalists. Historically, however, most criminal libel judgments have mandated prison terms that were either suspended or reduced to fines.

During 2000, there were reports that state printers delayed the publication of certain newspapers, apparently for political reasons, although the long-term newspaper closures of 1998 and previous years did not recur. However, local efforts to set up private printing operations have yet to bear fruit, and some papers still complained of favoritism at the state agency that distributes government advertising.

A June visit to Israel by nine Algerian journalists triggered a harsh verbal attack from President Bouteflika, who had himself made waves in 1999 by shaking hands with Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak at King Hassan II’s funeral in Morocco. The president called the visit treasonous and unforgivable, although it was difficult to believe his government had no advance knowledge of the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s invitation to the journalists.

Some foreign journalists continued to complain that Algerian authorities had denied them press visas because of their critical coverage of the country. By mid-year, the government had relaxed its policy of providing mandatory escorts for foreign reporters working in Algiers, although some foreign correspondents were still forced to accept the company of a government minder. This often made local sources reluctant to discuss political violence and other sensitive issues. Undercover state security agents also tailed foreign journalists, with similar effect.