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Press Freedom Groups Condemn Algeria’s Silencing of Independent Press

New York, N.Y., May 21--Government interference with independent journalism in Algeria is preventing the country’s citizens from getting the information they need to vote in the June 5 parliamentary elections, the first in that country in six years, the press freedom organizations ARTICLE 19 and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) charged today.

In a strongly worded joint letter to Algerian President Liamine Zeroual, the two groups criticized the authorities for closing newspapers, restricting news content and prosecuting journalists for their reporting on political issues. “These actions constitute a clear violation of the right to free expression guaranteed under international law,” said Malcolm Smart, acting director of the London-based ARTICLE 19, and William A. Orme Jr., executive director of the New York-based CPJ.

Four leading independent newspapers have been forced to close since January, the groups reported, and at least five other newspapers were closed between 1992 and 1995. Two of the papers, the French-language daily Al-Ouma and the Arabic-language weekly Eshourouk al-Arabi, ceased publication April 11 when the government shut down their printing press, Sodipresse, the first privately owned press in Algeria. Authorities said the action was due to a bad check issued by the press’s president, who was subsequently convicted and sentenced to 30 months in prison. But spokesmen for the newspaper Al-Ouma believe the closure was due to its increasingly critical editorial line against the state and an April 5 column titled “The Party of National Shame” that criticized the ruling party, the National Democratic Rally (RND). Eshourouk al-Arabi had also criticized the RND.

The other two papers that closed this year, the French-language weekly La Nation and its sister weekly, the Arab-language Al-Hourria, both critical of the government, were denied service by the state-owned printing press. Again the government cited “outstanding debts,” although both papers had settled their accounts in March, CPJ and ARTICLE 19 learned.

Five newspapers closed between 1992 and 1995 have been unable to reopen. “Each of these newspapers was known for its critical stance on the military’s intervention in the electoral process and on government human rights abuses” throughout the civil conflict that has been waged since 1992, Smart and Orme reported. “Although Algerian law stipulates that news publications may not be suspended for more than six months, the state printing house has refused to resume printing these newspapers,” they wrote.

Government censorship on news reporting about political violence continues to affect all newspapers, CPJ and ARTICLE 19 charged, citing controls imposed in 1994 with the creation of a “communications office” and the establishment of “reading committees” in 1996 to ensure that press reports about civil strife conform to official accounts. Such official censorship practices “have left journalists vulnerable to attacks by armed Islamist groups, who view the press as a mouthpiece for state propaganda,” they wrote, and led to an assassination campaign that has claimed the lives of 59 journalists since May 1993.

ARTICLE 19 and CPJ called on President Zeroual to “reverse the erosion of press freedom in Algeria” by rescinding the decisions that have forced newspaper closures and permitting the privately owned printing press to resume operations; abolishing government restrictions on news content and government-sponsored reading committees; enacting standards for holding newspapers accountable for debt that do not have the effect of limiting freedom of expression; and ceasing prosecution and harassment of journalists for their expression of news, opinions and ideas.
(full-text of letter)

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