New York, April 22, 2020 — Algerian authorities must immediately unblock the news websites Interlignes, Maghreb Emergent, and Radiom, and ensure that all media outlets can publish online freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On April 19, authorities blocked the local news website Interlignes, according to a report by the website and its founder, journalist and press freedom advocate Bouzid Ichalalene, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app.
On the same day, the Council of Ministers, headed by newly elected President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, approved a bill amending Algeria’s penal code to criminalize breaking the government imposed COVID-19 lockdown rules and spreading “false news” that harms national unity, according to state-owned news agency APS and Interlignes.
Penalties for convictions under the bill, which does not distinguish between news reports, social media, or other media, entail prison terms of two to five years and fines of 100,000 to 500,000 Algerian dinars ($778 to $3,891) for those convicted, according to news reports.
“When Algerian authorities arbitrarily censor news media just because they don’t like to be scrutinized, they show exactly why laws that equate reporting with a criminal act are more than likely to be abused and pose a grave threat to press freedom,” said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour. “We call on the administration of Abdelmadjid Tebboune to immediately unblock the news websites The Interlignes, Maghreb Emergent, and Radiom and set into motion legal reform so journalists cannot face criminal penalties for their work.”
All three websites have recently covered the COVID-19 pandemic in Algeria, and also covered the anti-government protests that have been taking place in the country since February 2019, according to CPJ’s review of their reporting. Radiom hosts several live web radio shows including a political commentary show hosted by Khaled Drareni, who has been imprisoned since March 27, as CPJ documented at the time of his arrest.
CPJ was able to access Interlignes, Maghreb Emergent, and Radiom from the United States. Ichalalene confirmed that all three websites are not accessible in Algeria without using virtual private network (VPN) software.
Maghreb Emergent and Radiom were blocked four days after Ihsane el-Kadi, the editor-in-chief of both websites, published an op-ed criticizing Tebboune’s first 100 days in office.
Algerian Minister of Communications Ammar Belhimer criticized that op-ed in an interview on April 15 and called it defamatory, and said that the block of the two websites served as a warning until “judicial procedures” against the outlets could be completed, according to news reports.
Authorities did not disclose any reason for blocking Interlignes, according to the website’s report, which said that the outlet did not know which government body ordered the censorship, or how long it might last.
Authorities previously blocked Interlignes for four months in 2019, also without disclosing any reason for the block, as CPJ documented at the time.
CPJ emailed the Algerian Ministry of Communications for comment, but did not receive any response.