Country Summary

As the fourth year of brutal civil conflict came to an end, journalists continued to face great peril, and Algeria remained the most dangerous place in the world for journalists. Since the army canceled parliamentary elections in January 1992 to prevent victory by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), an estimated 60,000 people have died as a result of the ensuing violence. Meanwhile, both sides of the conflict continue to victimize the press.

Since May 1993, 59 journalists have been murdered­presumed to be the work of Islamist militants seeking to overthrow the current government. In 1996 alone, seven journalists were assassinated, while several other media employees met similar fates. Strict government censorship of independent reporting on “security matters” has helped to fuel the Islamists’ campaign against the press. Factions such as the Armed Islamic Group (GIA)­which has claimed responsibility for nearly half the total number of journalists’ murders in Algeria­indiscriminately kill journalists for what they view as the media’s complicity with the Algerian government. The Islamists’ perception of the press stems in part from official censorship of news relating to security forces’ casualties or human rights abuses and the exclusion of Islamist viewpoints. Emergency law, for example, grants the state sweeping power to prosecute journalists whom it deems a threat to state security. Governmental decrees forbid newspapers to publish any stories on the conflict except those from the state-run Algerian Press Service (APS).

In February, the government further tightened its control over the press, establishing “reading committees” to ensure that stories on the civil strife conform with official accounts. The independent daily La Tribune summarized the overall effect of government restrictions, noting that “[p]ublications must stick to terse statements carried by the [official] Algerian Press Service (APS) which report the number of terrorists shot dead by the forces of order but ignore the death of tens of thousands of civilians and spectacular operations by armed gangs.”

Independent newspapers are, in effect, forced to walk a tightrope. Either they censor their own news stories and face the wrath of Islamists (who use the assassination of journalists as a way of getting into the papers), or they expose themselves to legal prosecution from the state and their publications to lengthy suspensions. Either they reprint APS stories, or ignore security matters altogether. In 1996, authorities continued to confiscate newspapers at the state printing press for articles that failed to conform to state guidelines.

Journalists were also subject to punitive measures for publishing material beyond the scope of “internal security.” In July, Chawki Amari, a cartoonist for the independent daily La Tribune, was charged with defaming the Algerian flag for a cartoon satirizing the political situation in Algeria. An appeals court, on Sept. 3, upheld a three-year suspended prison sentence against him. In addition to Amari, the paper’s publisher and editor in chief also received suspended prison sentences and the paper was subsequently banned for six months. In another case, state prosecutors summoned Omar Belhouchet, editor in chief of the independent daily Al-Watan, for questioning in regard to a libel accusation by the brother of a former government official. Although the charges against Belhouchet were later dropped, he remained under judicial supervision for nearly a month.

In addition to the blanket censorship of security matters, the authorities use more subtle means to constrain political discourse in the press. The government controls the supply of newsprint and owns the printing presses and is thus able to put economic pressure on newspapers. The state also wields considerable authority over the distribution of advertising, giving preferential treatment to those newspapers whose editorial line on the conflict most closely matches the government’s. When subtle means fail to restrain the press, the Interior Ministry suspends publications and summons reporters to court.

Foreign reporters traveling to Algeria continue to face restrictions on their freedom of movement. The government, citing security concerns, prevents foreign correspondents from moving around the country freely and meeting with opposition figures. This was the case for many foreign reporters trying to cover the country’s Nov. 28 constitutional referendum.

As 1996 came to a close, at least one journalist, Abdelkader Hadj Benaamane, a correspondent for APS, remained in prison. A state military court sentenced him in July 1995 to three years in prison for “attacking the security of the state and national unity.” The charges apparently stemmed from an internal APS news wire, which reported on the whereabouts of imprisoned FIS leaders Abassi Madani and Ali Belhadj. Another journalist, Djamel Fahassi, a reporter with the government-run French-language radio station Alger Chaine III and a former contributor to the now-banned Al-Forqane­a weekly organ of the FIS­was arrested by security forces in May 1995. Although witnesses and family members attest that security forces apprehended Fahassi, authorities continue to deny his arrest and his whereabouts remain unknown.

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