Court hands down jail terms in defamation case

New York, December 23, 2008–The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the decision by an Algerian court to sentence an editor-in-chief and a journalist at the Algiers-based independent daily El Watan to a three-month jail term each for defamation on Monday.

Omar Belhouchet, editor of El Watan, and reporter Salima Tlemcani, were found guilty of defaming a faith healer and Islam in a 2004 article about the “charlatan-like practices” of the Algiers healer, said the journalists’ lawyer, Khaled Bourayou. The lawyer told CPJ that he is appealing the verdict.

After the story appeared, the Ethics Committee of the Algerian Physicians’ Syndicate investigated the healer, eventually shuttering his practice. The man filed a defamation suit after that, Borayou said.

“It is deplorable that the court has handed down two prison terms in a case filed by a man who has since been prohibited from practicing by the authorities,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. “We call on the appeals court to overturn this verdict. Criminal defamation does not meet international standards of press freedom.”

Dr. Sebabou Mohamed, a licensed physician who turned to faith healing, claiming he could exorcise ghosts from his patients, filed a defamation lawsuit against Tlemcani after she wrote an investigative piece about his practice, Bourayou said.

The physician-turned-healer did not testify at or attend any of the court proceedings, Bourayou told CPJ