Bouteflika urged to reverse Algerian press freedom abuses

April 20, 2009

His Excellency Abdelaziz Bouteflika
C/o Embassy of Algeria
2118 Kalorama Road NW
Washington, DC 20008

Via facsimile: 202-667-2174

Dear Mr. President,

The Committee to Protect Journalists is writing to protest the rising incidence of press freedom violations, many of which occurred during the recent electoral campaign that resulted in your re-election to a third term.

CPJ research shows that the rate of abuses began to increase in February 2006, after your government issued a draconian decree restricting free expression and placing sharp limits on discussion of the conflict that ravaged Algeria in the 1990s. In a letter we sent to you at the time, CPJ pointed out that the decree prohibits further investigation into the serious human rights abuses perpetrated in the 1990s, including the murder of dozens of journalists and the disappearances of at least two. This decree has prompted greater self-censorship in the Algerian media, has served as a new prescription for the harassment and imprisonment of critical journalists, and has widened the gap between Algerian policies and international standards for free expression. 

Many Algerian journalists and human rights lawyers recently told CPJ that the siege on independent journalism has gradually intensified over these past three years and that your government seemed increasingly inclined to use harsh measures to silence and punish critical journalists.

CPJ would like to bring to your attention the following recent developments:

  • On the eve of your re-election, the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights deplored at a press conference in Algiers the “total lack of critical debate” in the media on the presidential election and the inclination on the part of the state-owned media, particularly radio and television broadcasters, to favor the incumbent president over his five challengers. It also noted the absence of state media attention to those who opposed the November 2008 constitutional amendment that scrapped presidential term limits, and those who called for a boycott of the election. 
  • During the same press conference, this local human rights group denounced authorities’ decision to bar Sihem Bensedrine, a Tunisian journalist and human rights defender, from entering Algeria. Bensedrine, who arrived at Algiers Houari Boumedien Airport on April 4 to take part in monitoring local media coverage of the presidential election under the umbrella of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights, was forced by airport police to leave on the same plane that brought her from Paris. No explanation was provided.
  • Three French weeklies, L’Express, Marianne and Le Journal du Dimanche, were confiscated in Algeria in the run-up to the April 9 presidential election, allegedly for violating Article 26 of the Information Code of 1990, Algerian and French media reported. This article forbids the publication of content that is “contrary to Islamic and national values and human rights, or apologetic of racism, fanaticism and treason.” The Algerian government provided no explanation and, in fact, publicly acknowledged only the decision to bar distribution of L’Express. The French weeklies posted on their respective Web sites the articles they believed your government did not want Algerians to read. These articles mainly dealt with how the country’s top army officers backed your rule and shared power with you since 1999. They also highlighted your achievements and shortcomings and the influence of your allies and family members in Algerian political life. Christophe Barbier, managing editor of L’Express, said that Algerian readers “are mature enough to read and judge for themselves.” In a statement posted on the weekly’s Web site, Barbier said it was “extremely alarming” to see Algeria slide into what he called “a kind of denial of press freedom, therefore a denial of democracy.”
  • In early March, the Paris-based monthly Afrique Magazine was confiscated at the Algiers airport for breaching “national values.” Zyad Limam, publisher and owner of the magazine, told Agence France-Presse that he thought an article headlined “Algeria, the twilight of the generals,” which discussed relations between the president and the main army generals, led to the confiscation of that issue.
  • Journalists report that they have had to wait for months to get a visa to Algeria, or have seen their visa applications simply ignored, CPJ research shows. Florence Beaugé of the French daily Le Monde, who has been traveling to Algeria over the past nine years, wrote on the paper’s Web site that she waited more than six months before getting a visa allowing her to cover the April 9 election. She also said journalists seeking access to official sources or communication with officials in Algeria often found themselves “facing a wall of silence.” 
  • Nedjar Hadj Daoud, managing director of the news Web site Al-Waha (The Oasis) and someone known for denouncing corruption, was jailed on March 2 at Chaabet Ennichene Prison in Ghardaia. He was sentenced to six months in prison on a defamation conviction issued by a minor court in 2005 and upheld by the country’s highest court in 2008. Daoud said 67 complaints for defamation had been filed against him by what he called the “corruption lobby” and that he has been the target of several death threats and three assassination attempts since 2003 for writing about the involvement of government employees in abuses of power, corruption and drug-trafficking. Daoud has been granted a provisional release on medical grounds. CPJ welcomed his release, but expressed concerns that he could be forced return to prison to serve the remainder of the six-month sentence. 
  • On election day, Moroccan journalists Hicham Madraoui and Mahfoud Ait Bensaleh of the weekly Assahraa Alousbouia were taken to a police station in Algiers, where, according to the National Syndicate of Moroccan Press, they were interrogated. The syndicate denounced the action.
  • Hafnaoui Ghoul, a freelance journalist and activist with the Djelfa branch of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights, who has frequently been prosecuted by local officials and jailed for defamation over the past years, survived a knife assault in January at the hands of unidentified assailants. He told CPJ this week that local security and judicial authorities have turned a blind eye to this life-threatening assault. He currently faces 13 complaints for defamation because of his articles about abuse of power and corruption.

CPJ calls on you to revoke the February 2006 decree that bans journalists from writing about events that unfolded during Algeria’s civil war, to renounce the restrictions placed against the independent press, and to halt the imprisonment and harassment of Algerian journalists who have already paid a heavy price during past decades. We ask you to ensure that authorities investigate attacks and threats against journalists and to prosecute those responsible.

We also urge you to take prompt action to bring Algerian legislation into conformity with international standards for freedom of expression and to allow independent reporting into the disappearance of our colleagues Djameleddine Fahassi and Aziz Bouabdellah, who vanished in 1995 and 1997 respectively, and the deaths and murders of 58 journalists between 1993 and 1996.

Thank you for your attention to these urgent matters. We look forward to your reply.

Joel Simon
Executive Director