Algeria’s outspoken private press endured another year of legal persecution, with the imprisonment of at least three journalists and the closure of a handful of publications. The country’s harsh Penal Code is an effective tool of repression; it was amended in 2001 to allow prison sentences of up to one year and substantial fines for defaming the president, the courts, the military, or Parliament.
National and provincial officials frequently bring defamation lawsuits against muckraking journalists, and a guilty verdict can mean jail time. The government also uses the state printing and tax authorities to control the press.
Hafnaoui Ghoul, who wrote for the Algerian dailies El-Youm (Today) and Djazair News, was arrested in Djelfa in May and charged with defaming the local governor, Mohamed Adou, in an article he wrote for Djazair News, and in an interview he gave to the French-language daily Le Soir D’Algérie (Algeria Evening). In the article, the jour-
nalist accused local officials, including Adou, of misusing public funds; in the interview, he blamed Djelfa officials for the deaths of several premature babies at the local public hospital. After he was sentenced to several months in prison—and with nearly two dozen criminal lawsuits still pending against him—Ghoul launched a two-week hunger strike in August to protest. He was released pending appeal.
Ahmed Benaoum, chief executive officer of Errai al-Aam, a media company that publishes three newspapers, including the Arabic-language daily Errai (The Opinion), was sentenced to two months in prison on defamation charges in July by a criminal court in Oran, Algeria’s second-largest city. Because Benaoum’s company was unable
to pay debts owed to the state-owned printer, it was forced in August 2003 to stop publishing Errai, the French-language daily Le Journal de l’Ouest (Journal of the
West), and the French-language weekly Detective. The defamation charges stemmed from several 2003 articles in Errai that accused a local police chief of financial mismanagement. As with Ghoul, several other defamation cases were filed against Benaoum. He was jailed again on business-related charges in late 2004; local sources suggest that the case was further punishment for exposing corruption.
Some journalists attribute the heightened tensions to the confrontational attitude toward the press of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was re-elected to a second five-year term in April. In the months leading up to the election, many top-selling private newspapers vigorously opposed Bouteflika and relentlessly attacked his record. During the campaign, Bouteflika reportedly compared the local press to “terrorists” and said he would fight the “mercenaries of the pen.” Since the election, analysts say, Bouteflika and top aides have used their influence to bring lawsuits against dissident journalists and exert financial pressure against critical newspapers by demanding sudden payment of taxes and state printer fees.
In a case that garnered much attention, Mohamed Benchicou, publisher of the French-language daily Le Matin (The Morning) and a harsh critic of Bouteflika, was sentenced to two years in prison in June after being convicted of violating the country’s currency laws in 2003. Analysts say the sentence was particularly harsh, and the case appeared to come in retaliation for Le Matin‘s tough editorial line. In 2003, Le Matin alleged that Interior Minister Yazid Zerhouni had tortured detainees while he was a military security commander in the 1970s, a charge that Zerhouni denied. Benchicou further angered officials in February 2004, when he published a book titled Bouteflika, An Algerian Fraud. Dozens of other cases were pending against Benchicou in 2004, including lawsuits alleging that he defamed Bouteflika in articles published in Le Matin. At year’s end, Algerian courts had handed down suspended prison sentences to several journalists for “insulting” the president and libeling government ministries in articles.
The state-owned printer, which publishes most newspapers, is another reliable tool of repression for authorities. Le Matin and two other daily newspapers, Le Nouvel Algérie Actualité (New Algeria News) and El Djarida (The Newspaper), were forced to halt publication in July when the printer suddenly demanded payment of debts. Most private newspapers are chronically indebted to the state-owned printer; journalists say that demands for immediate payment of outstanding debts are selective and political in nature. The private press is trying to circumvent such control: A small number of high-circulation dailies now own printers, while other, large publications plan to purchase printers.
The besieged Le Matin closed in July, when authorities began to pressure it for back taxes. The paper also complained that the government had been pressuring advertisers to stop buying ads.
Algeria’s private press, which has existed for nearly 15 years, is far from meek in its government criticism, especially compared with the subservient press in neighboring Arab states such as Tunisia and Libya. Algerian journalists say they often test the limits of what is acceptable—reporting frequently on the political violence that still plagues parts of the country, for example. Still, many private Algerian newspapers are beholden to their powerful owners, who often include military and government personalities who use their papers to settle political scores.
Journalists say that self-censorship is waning but still exists, especially when it comes to matters of national security, the security forces, the military, and certain politicians. Security forces still exert behind-the-scenes pressure by telephoning journalists with instructions and warnings.
The government moved on two fronts to control the foreign media. In June, under the guise of reorganizing accreditation for foreign journalists, the Ministry of Communications announced that journalists working for foreign news outlets may be employed by only one news organization. Analysts called it a political move to limit critical foreign reporting since many journalists often work for more than one news outlet to make ends meet. In late June, the ministry suspended the news operations of the satellite television channel Al-Jazeera in Algeria without giving a reason. Press accounts speculated that the closure may have been triggered by a program that criticized Bouteflika’s political amnesty policy, or by coverage of an extremist group’s attack on a power station.
The government continued to inhibit the work of foreign journalists by assigning them security escorts. The situation appeared to improve in April, when large numbers of journalists arrived to cover the presidential elections. Foreign reporters said they could operate freely without minders, but they were required to sign waivers absolving the government of responsibility for their safety.
The government owns local television and radio stations, which reflect official positions. Algerian journalists say there is no indication that authorities will relinquish control of local broadcasting anytime soon.