May 21, 1997
His Excellency Liamine Zeroual
President of the Democratic and Popular Republic of Algeria
c/o His Excellency Ambassador Lamamra Remtame
Embassy of Algeria
2118 Kalorama Road., N.W.
Washington, DC 20008
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and ARTICLE 19 (the International Centre Against Censorship) are writing jointly to express our deep concern about ongoing government interference with independent journalism in Algeria, which constitutes a clear violation of the right to free expression guaranteed under international law. Since the beginning of Algerias civil conflict in 1992, authorities have systematically targeted certain segments of the independent press through the closure of newspapers, restrictions on the content of news, and the prosecution of journalists who have dared to report on sensitive political issues. As Algeria prepares for the first parliamentary elections since 1991, these measures severely limit the access of citizens to diversity of information and ideas necessary for participatory democracy.
Between January 1997 and last month, state actions have forced four leading independent newspapersLa Nation, Al-Hourria, Eshourouk al-Arabi, and Al-Oumato close. On April 11, 1997, two newspapersthe French language daily Al-Ouma and the Arabic language weekly Eshourouk al-Arabiwere forced to cease publication following the authorities closure of Sodipresse, the newspapers printing press. Sodipresse, the first privately owned printing press in Algeria, was established in July 1996 by a group of Algerian investors in response to the states printing monopoly and its use of economic pressure against independent newspapers. Algerian authorities cited a bad check issued to the state printer (Societe dImpression dAlger, or SIA) by Saad Lounes, president of Sodipresse and director of Al-Ouma, for money Al-Ouma had owed to it. On April 28, Lounes was convicted and sentenced to 30 months in jail for the offense.
Sources close to Al-Ouma have emphasized that the state has no legal basis for its action, since Sodipresse is a private enterprise with no formal links to Al-Ouma and, more important, because it has committed no known offense under Algerian law. Spokesmen for the newspaper believe that the motivation for the authorities closure of Sodipresse may have been Al-Oumas increasingly critical editorial line against the state. One week before Sodipresses closure, a column in the April 5, 1997, issue of the newspaper titled The Party of National Shame strongly criticized the National Democratic Rally (RND), the recently formed political party that supports Your Excellency. The other newspaper which used the printing facilities at Sodipressethe weekly Eshourouk al-Arabiwas also forced to cease publication. Like Al-Ouma, it had published criticisms of the RND.
CPJ and ARTICLE 19 are concerned about the use of debt obligations to silence newspapers with a critical editorial line toward the state, noting that other indebted newspapers have been allowed to continue publishing. Equally disturbing is the lack of clear legal guidelines for authorities closure of indebted newspapers. Since
January, the state-owned printing press refused service to two other independent newspapersthe French-language weekly La Nation and its sister publication, the Arabic weekly Al-Hourriadue to outstanding debts. CPJ and ARTICLE 19 have learned that although both papers settled their accounts in March, SIA has refused to resume printing these newspapers without providing any reason.
At least five other newspapers remain closed: Al-Wajh al-Akhar, a satirical Arabic-language weekly suspended for six months without explanation by the Ministry of Interior on Feb. 20, 1995; the Arabic weekly Essah-Afa, suspended on Aug. 19, 1992, reportedly on the grounds that it published communiqués by the outlawed Islamic
Salvation Front (FIS); the Arabic weekly Ennour, closed indefinitely on Oct. 2, 1992, by the Ministry of Culture and Information for allegedly defaming state institutions; the daily Al-Hiwar, suspended in November 1994 without explanation; and the Arabic daily Al-Djazair al-Youm, suspended indefinitely on Aug. 1, 1993, without explanation. Each of these newspapers was known for its critical stance on the militarys intervention in the electoral process and on government human rights abuses throughout the conflict. 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.
The newspapers that still publish are subjected to government censorship of news reporting about political violence. In June 1994, the Interior Ministry established a communications office whose sole purpose was to release official communiqués, fed to the press through the official Algerian Press Service (APS). The ministry also sent a secret directive to all members of the national media forbidding independent coverage of security matters. In February 1996, the government further tightened its control of the press, establishing reading committees to ensure that stories about civil strife conform to official accounts. Later that year, the independent French-language daily La Tribune summarized the overall effect of the government restrictions, noting that: [p]ublications must stick to terse statements carried by the 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 [a reference to government-sponsored civilian militias]. Newspapers that fail to comply risk lengthy suspensions or prosecution of their employees under the vaguely worded provisions of the 1990 press law. Since 1993, CPJ has documented 24 cases of newspapers that were suspended due to reporting on security-related topicsa broad category which includes issues as diverse as government human rights abuses and reporting of Islamist viewpoints. CPJ has also documented at least 19 prosecutions of journalists under the press law or related legal provisions as a result of reporting on security issues.
Official censorship practices have left journalists vulnerable to attacks by armed Islamist groups, who view the press as a mouthpiece for state propaganda. Since May 1993, this assassination campaign has claimed the lives of 59 journalists.
As nonpartisan, nongovernmental organizations devoted to upholding press freedom worldwide, CPJ and ARTICLE 19 believe that Algerian authorities have sought to silence segments of the independent press on the basis of the content of their news and editorials. Such measures represent clear violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Algeria is a state party. The ICCPR guarantees the freedom of journalists and editors to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers. We therefore urge Your Excellency to reverse the erosion of press freedom in Algeria. We respectfully request that you consider the following recommendations aimed at bringing Algerias practices in conformity with international standards for a free press:
- Reverse the decisions that have closed daily and weekly newspapers and permit these papers to immediately resume publication. Also, permit the privately owned Sodipresse printing press to resume operations Immediately.
- Abolish government restrictions on the content of news, including government-sponsored reading committees.
- Enact standards to hold newspapers accountable for debt in a nondiscriminatory manner that does not have the effect of limiting freedom of expression.
- Cease the prosecution and harassment of journalists for their expression of news, opinions, and ideas.
We thank Your Excellency for your attention to these important matters. We welcome your comments.
William A. Orme Jr,
Committee to Protect Journalists
His Excellency Ambassador Lamamra Remtame
The Honorable Ambassador Ronald E. Neumann
American Society of Newspaper Editors
Canadian Committee To Protect Journalists
Congressional Committee to Support Writers and Journalists
Human Rights Watch
Index on Censorship
International Association of Broadcasting
International Federation of Journalists
International Federation of Newspaper Publishers
International Journalism Institute
International Press Institute
National Association of Black Journalists
National Press Club
Newspaper Association of America
The Newspaper Guild
North American National Broadcasters Association
Reporters sans Frontieres
Overseas Press Club
The Society of Professional Journalists
World Press Freedom Committee