In late 2022, the international community assessed Algeria’s human rights record as part of the United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review (UPR) before the Human Rights Council. Despite recommendations to amend practices restricting expression, press freedom, and assembly, just a month after their UPR in December 2022, Algerian authorities closed down the country’s last remaining independent news outlet, Radio M, and arrested its editor Ihsane El Kadi. The arrest of El Kadi solicited widespread condemnation and was formally referred to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression.
Despite the mounting outcry from rights groups, authorities have continued targeting journalists and civil society. In January 2023, the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH) learned that it had been dissolved by an administrative court, following a complaint by the Interior Ministry; LADDH had been entirely unaware of the judicial proceedings and only learned of the judgement via the internet and months after it was issued. In late February, authorities formally dissolved the Youth Action Group (RAJ) and the Movement for Democracy and Socialism party – two groups who played critical roles in the Hirak protest movement in 2019. In the same week, authorities arrested Raouf Farrah, a senior analyst at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, along with his father over charges of “receiving funds” to “disturb public peace.” According to media reports, Farrah’s arrests were part of a wider investigation into the circumstances that led to an activist’s departure from Algeria despite facing a travel ban. The activist, Amira Bouraoui, fled to France via Tunisia – a Tunisian court subsequently sentenced Bouraoui to three months in prison in absentia on February 24, 2023.
These developments fit into a broader timeline stemming from attempts at curbing the Hirak (Arabic for “movement”) protest movement and deterring media coverage of the protests beginning in 2019. The Hirak movement came years after protests swept the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, during which headlines seemed to suggest that Algeria was an anomaly. As its neighbors appeared to be making progress towards democracy, by 2019, the tables turned. Tunisia and Morocco, which observers previously lauded for their reforms, were now the subject of international ire and scrutiny due to their authoritarian regression. Meanwhile in Algeria and in the diaspora, hundreds of thousands descended onto the streets of cities to reject the renewal of what would have been President Abd al-Aziz Bouteflika’s fifth term. Dubbed the Hirak movement, it was now Algeria’s turn to capture the spotlight. In less than 10 months, Bouteflika announced his resignation.
Even after this, Algerians continued to organize against corruption, restrictive laws, and unemployment, among other issues – common grievances shared by millions of other citizens across the region. Since 2019, however, developments in Algeria have pointed to an ongoing deterioration in human rights and press freedom. In August 2019, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported that access to at least five independent news websites had been blocked without any official notification. In addition to the arrest of a number of Algerian journalists, foreign reporters also faced detention and deportation, including the expulsion of AFP’s bureau chief and journalists working with Reuters and TRT. This prompted CPJ to issue a safety advisory in April 2019, in which they urged journalists to exercise caution while on assignment.
By the end of 2019, journalists were increasingly targeted: Sofiane Merakchi was arrested and charged with working for foreign news outlets “without a license and evading customs authorities;” Said Boudour, Abdelmoundji Kheladi, and Adel Azeb Chikh were held in pre-trial detention pending trials over an array of charges including “defamation and the spread of false news, insulting authorities, and obstructing traffic;” authorities confiscated editor-in-chief of Le Provincial Bendjama Mustapha’s computer and arrested him without any explanation; cartoonist Benabdelhamid Amine was sentenced to one year in prison for insulting the president, “violating territorial integrity,” and “disseminating publications harmful to national security;” and RSF correspondent Khaled Drareni was arrested for “assembly without a permit.”
But the year 2019 would only mark the beginning of a long string of attacks on the press. On May 17, 2021, authorities arrested a total of 16 journalists for covering a demonstration in Algiers. Meanwhile, over the course of the summer in 2021, authorities revoked the accreditation of international news broadcasters, including France 24 and Al-Arabiya. Even Algerians in the diaspora could not evade the long reach of the crackdown. In March 2022, Spain complied with Algeria’s international arrest warrant for outspoken critic and former army corporal Mohamed Benhalima, who was swiftly jailed upon arrival. In May 2022, at least three Hirak activists, who also hold Canadian citizenship, faced an arbitrary travel ban and were prevented from leaving Algeria. In a report on these cases, Human Rights Watch stated, “The message is clear: Algerians who speak out need to look out, no matter where they live.”
These developments and the arrest of a number of other journalists and activists coincided with Algeria’s aforementioned Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in late 2022 – a moment during which the country’s human rights record was scrutinized by the international community. Some States and rights groups pointed to the use of vaguely worded laws to prosecute journalists and activists under the guise of “national security,” such as the Law on Information (Law No. 12-05), the Law on Associations (Law No. 12-06), and the Law on Audiovisual Activity (Law No. 14-04). Algerian journalist Ihsane El Kadi, for example, currently remains in pre-trial detention over charges that include “receiving funds and benefits from foreign sources for the purpose of engaging in political propaganda” and “undermining state security and public order.”
With the exception of the UPR, international powers have not paid the necessary attention to these developments. However, the attention on Algeria’s human rights violations has not entirely dissipated. The case of Amira Bouraoui, for example, has revived diplomatic tensions between Algeria and France in which Algeria recalled its ambassador to France and accused the country of helping orchestrate her escape. In a recent statement, Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, condemned the escalating crackdown, stating: “Acts of intimidation, silencing and repression against the human rights movement must end […]. We have been sharing strong concerns over numerous provisions of the Algerian law on associations (12/06), which contradict international human rights law.”
While the days of the Hirak movement seemed to suggest that Algeria was heading towards the path of progress, the developments of the past few years with regards to freedom of the press and freedom of expression are suggesting otherwise. Despite this, Algerians remain hopeful and steadfast. On March 12, 2023, Algerian journalist Ihsane El Kadi faced a hearing during which he addressed the court with both humor and resolve: “I wore a brand new shirt and shoes to come before [you]. I’m not going to wait for a judgement from afar and I have not consulted my defense team, but I request to be dismissed and I inform you, with all respect, that I am on strike and will boycott this trial.” So long as authorities respond to Algerians’ peaceful demands for justice and rights with repression, the sparks for change will continue to flicker in Algeria – a country whose recent history has been defined by its people making costly sacrifices for dignity.
Samia Errazzouki is a Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP focusing on press freedom in North Africa, with a special emphasis on the situation of women journalists.
This analysis was originally published as a feature piece in Issue 1 of the Rule of Law Developments in the Middle East and North Africa newsletter, produced by Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Rule of Law Programme Middle East & North Africa and TIMEP.