Algerian court upholds jail terms for two journalists

New York, March 5, 2008—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the decision on Tuesday by an Algerian court of appeals to uphold two-month jail terms for two journalists at the Algiers-based independent daily El Watan.

The appeal court in Jijel, nearly 224 miles (360 kilometers) east of Algiers, upheld the convictions of Omar Belhouchet, editor of El Watan, and columnist Chawki Amari. Both were convicted of defaming and insulting the governor of Jijel. The court also upheld a 1 million Algerian dinar ($15,000) fine, Zoubeir Soudani, El Watan’s lawyer told CPJ.

Soudani said the two journalists plan to appeal to the Supreme Court.

“The use of the judiciary to settle political scores and to intimidate journalists has been on the rise in Algeria since 2004,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We ask the Supreme Court to overturn Omar Belhouchet and Chawki Amari’s convictions. Criminal defamation falls well below the international standards for press freedom.”

The case stemmed from a complaint filed by the governor of Jijel after El Watan published a column by Amari in December 2006 in which he accused the governor of using public funds to buy a car for his mistress, said the paper’s lawyer. Belhouchet and Amari were prosecuted for defamation and insulting comment. They were sentenced on December 24, 2006, to three-month jail terms and fined 1 million Algerian dinars (US$15,000) by a misdemeanor court in Jijel.

The two journalists, who had not been informed about the prosecution and court hearing, appealed the verdict. They were granted a retrial on May 27, 2007, and had their sentences reduced to two months.

El Watan is one of the best-known French-language dailies in North Africa.