With Algerians preparing for the April 2004 presidential election , the government of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has always had a contentious relationship with the media, took steps to restrict press freedom. Since 1990, when the first private newspapers were allowed in Algeria, the media and the government have engaged in a tug-of-war. In 2003, government interference intensified, marked by a campaign of legal harassment and financial pressure on private newspapers.
Authorities have used amendments to the Penal Code passed in 2001 against journalists, who can face prison sentences of up to one year and substantial fines if convicted of defaming the president, the courts, the military, or Parliament.
The government still controls radio and television, which rarely broadcast critical views. But some private newspapers aggressively report on government affairs and the political violence that has plagued the country for more than a decade. Algerian journalists say they are most careful when reporting on the army and the president, although they do criticize Bouteflika’s policies. Nonetheless, self-censorship, ideological prejudices, and limited information have restricted coverage of controversial topics such as government human rights abuses, military corruption, and the military’s role in national politics. Just how independent the private press really is remains up for debate, and journalists sometimes accuse publications of serving the interests of powerful politicians and military figures. Many journalists work for or have close ties with military intelligence officers, Algerian journalists told CPJ.
Between 1993 and 1996, fifty-eight Algerian journalists were murdered at the height of the country’s civil conflict, which pitted the army and security forces against Islamist militants and other armed groups. It is believed that Islamist extremists were behind most of the killings, but many Algerian journalists suspect the government was involved in some as well. According to CPJ research, more journalists were killed in Algeria between 1992 and 2003 than in any other country in the world. The government has not allowed independent or international inquiries into the deaths.
In addition to the journalists killed in the 1990s, journalists Djamel Eddine Fahassi and Aziz Bouabdallah have been missing since 1995 and 1997, respectively, and no progress has been made in finding them. While Algerian authorities deny any responsibility for their disappearances, CPJ investigations have revealed that state security agents likely abducted the journalists.
In August 2003, after several private newspapers ran articles about financial malfeasance committed by top government officials, including the president’s brother, the state-owned printer ordered the newspapers El-Khabar, Errai, Le Soir d’Algérie, Le Matin, L’Expression, and Liberté to pay debts owed to it within 72 hours, or they would not be printed. Many journalists believe that the order was an attempt by Bouteflika to muzzle the papers.
While the publications’ editors confirmed that they owed money to the printer, they said they had agreed to pay in installments, and that the money demanded was not owed for months. The editors also pointed out that only critical newspapers were targeted, while many others that owed debts to the printer never received the ultimatum.
In September and October, after all the newspapers except Errai had paid off their debts to the printer and resumed publication, police began summoning many of the papers’ editors, publishers, and journalists, as well as other journalists and editors who had criticized the government. Officers questioned them about articles and cartoons in their publications. Later, many of the journalists were brought before investigating judges and told that they were being investigated for defaming the president. When journalists began ignoring the summonses, police arrested them at their offices and homes. None of the journalists had been charged by year’s end, and all had been released from jail.
In November, Algerian courts sentenced a number of journalists to prison. A court in Saida, in southwestern Algeria, sentenced Hassan Bouras, a journalist with the private daily Al-Jazairi, to two years in prison and barred him from practicing journalism for five years. Several individuals had sued him for defamation because of articles he wrote in Al-Jazairi about the misconduct of local government officials, including a story about their involvement in a real estate scam. Bouras spent several weeks in prison, but he was released just prior to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s visit to the country in early December. Later that month, an appeals court overturned the sentence and the ban but ordered Bouras to pay fines and damages of 110,000 Algerian dinars (US$1,500).
Also in November, columnist Sid Ahmed Semiane, who lives in France, was sentenced in absentia to six months in jail in retaliation for a column he had written in 2002 criticizing the Ministry of Defense, which sued him for defamation as well. His case was awaiting an appeal at year’s end. In November, Farid Alilat, editor of the French-language daily Liberté, was handed a four-month suspended prison sentence after being convicted of insulting the president in a recent article about high-level government corruption. Alilat and another journalist at the paper were also fined a crippling sum, but the case was awaiting an appeal at year’s end.
Journalists say that obtaining a license for a new publication remains difficult, with some applications approved while others languish with no response. Some journalists have accused the authorities of blocking new titles that could be politically controversial. Nonetheless, at least four new publications have appeared recently: Le Jour D’Algerie, a French-language daily; Al-Akhbar, an Arabic-language daily; and two French-language weeklies, Le Débat and La Dépêche. Other license applications have also been approved, and the papers should be appearing on newsstands shortly.
Foreign journalists working in Algeria also face obstacles. The government sometimes monitors what they report, curtails their freedom of movement, and even censors their work. Many journalists are forced to be accompanied by government security escorts, which authorities say ensures journalists’ safety. Journalists, however, contend the escorts are intended to control their work and limit whom they meet.
In the summer of 2003, government officials contacted foreign news outlets in the capital, Algiers, and barred them from covering the July 2 release of Ali Belhadj and Abassi Madani, leaders of the banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) who were sentenced to prison in 1992. The state-run French television stations France 2 and France 3 and the private French station TF1 ignored the orders and fed a tape of Belhadj’s release to Paris from their hotel. After the footage aired on French television, police went to the hotel and confiscated the journalists’ equipment. The TF1 team left the country July 3, before officials drafted an expulsion order, while Algerian authorities accompanied the France 2 and France 3 journalists to the airport that day.