Authorities continued to use legal harassment as the primary means
of intimidating the private press, wielding a penal code that criminalizes defaming the president, the judiciary, Parliament, and the military. Emboldened by his re-election in 2004, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, together with his political and business allies, registered hundreds of legal complaints against private newspapers critical of the government. Criminal defamation cases against the press were heard routinely in Algiers courtrooms.
In contrast to 2004, when three journalists were imprisoned, no members of the press were jailed during the year. However, Mohamed Benchicou, publisher of the now-defunct Algiers daily Le Matin, remained in prison on charges of violating currency laws, which many colleagues believe were brought in retaliation for Le Matin‘s criticism of Bouteflika and powerful state ministers. Authorities lodged additional defamation charges against Benchicou after his two-year sentence began in 2004, including at least one charge of defaming the president.
Faced with the threat of legal action, journalists continued to censor themselves when writing about the president and powerful security and military personnel. Some also complained that authorities leveraged a huge public-sector economy to exert financial pressure on newspapers. State-owned companies advertise much more prominently in newspapers that support the government, and they generally avoid advertising in critical publications, journalists said.
Authorities occasionally denied newspapers access to printing facilities in 2005, although they did so less frequently than in previous years. Most private newspapers rely on state-owned printing presses, although a few have bought their own presses to circumvent the government’s attempt at control.
Algerian journalists had to cope not only with harsh press laws, but also with a judiciary that did not appear to be acting independently in its handling of press-related cases. In April, several journalists associated with the shuttered Le Matin were convicted of defamation. According to local journalists, reporters Abla Cherif and Hassan Zerrouki were sentenced to two months in prison for defaming a businessman from the United Arab Emirates, based on a 2003 article in Le Matin about his involvement in procuring a license for a company in which he had a stake. The paper’s former editor-in-chief, Youssef Rezzouj, and reporter Yasmine Ferroukh were also found guilty of defamation. They were sentenced to three months in prison on charges arising from a 2003 article that accused Minister of Energy and Mining Chakib Khelil of abusing state funds. All four journalists were freed pending appeal.
In May, a criminal court in Algiers found current and former employees of the French-language daily Liberté guilty of defaming the president. Cartoonist Ali Dilem was fined 50,000 Algerian dinars (US$700) for cartoons published in summer 2003 that satirized Bouteflika and his re-election campaign. Former Liberté director Farid Alilat was sentenced to one year in prison for having published the cartoons. Alilat, who now lives in France, was sentenced in absentia.
Le Soir d’Algérie journalists Fouad Boughanem and Ridha Belhajouja, who publishes under the name Hakim Laalam, were also found guilty in May of defaming the president. They were sentenced to two months in prison; both were freed pending appeal. The charges against the journalists stemmed from articles published in late 2003 that were critical of Bouteflika’s re-election campaign.
In a positive development, Ahmed Benaoum, chief officer of the Errai al-Aam media group, was released in June after an appeals court overturned a 2004 ruling that sentenced him to two years in prison. Benaoum–who, like Le Matin‘s Benchicou, had several cases lodged against him–had been charged with defamation and financial misappropriation. The New York-based Human Rights Watch attended the appeals court hearing in which his release was ordered.
Television and radio, major sources of news for much of Algeria’s population, are state-controlled and support Bouteflika’s policies. But many Algerians rely on pan-Arab and European-based news channels for information. Journalists told CPJ that the government appears unlikely to loosen its grip on local television and radio anytime soon.
The foreign media in Algeria remain hampered by the state bureaucracy. The two most popular pan-Arab stations, Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, have yet to acquire Ministry of Information approval to open bureaus in Algiers. Independent journalists blame the government’s refusal on a desire to control Algeria’s image in the broader Arab world.