Algerian journalists gather in protest to demand the release of their colleague Khaled Drareni on August 24, 2020. (Photo by RYAD KRAMDI/AFP via Getty Images)

Algeria’s Worsening Crackdown on the Press Amid Transition and Pandemic

11/17/2020 . By Yasmina Allouche

In an interview with French daily l’Opinion last month, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune stated how “no journalist has been arrested for being a journalist”—only for “the breaching of public order.”

The recent spate arrests and incarceration of journalists is a reality that is not reflected by Tebboune’s comments, and his crackdown—since taking office in December 2019—has led to unprecedented restrictions on freedom of expression in the country, according to Amnesty International.

Following a largely-boycotted election, there was increased pressure to silence dissent through the censoring of many online news outlets and the imprisoning of a number of journalists over their social media posts and coverage of the Hirak protest movement.

According to the National Committee on the Freedom of Detainees, over 70 Algerian activists, protesters, and journalists are currently detained for Facebook posts deemed criminal on bases that include “harming Algeria’s national integrity,” “insulting the President of the Republic,” and “inciting a gathering.”

Ahead of November’s referendum on constitutional reforms presented by the regime as an olive branch to protesters and others calling for reform, Tebboune’s government made an effort to ensure that the roadmap saw as few bumps in the road as possible by silencing those opposed to the process. In the words of the Minister of Youth and Sport a week before the referendum in November, Algerians unhappy with the constitutional changes should simply “change country.”

Journalists reporting on COVID-19 developments have also been arrested, and citizens who filmed and posted footage online of the dire conditions in which patients are treated in the nation’s poorly-equipped hospitals have also been rounded up by authorities—a far cry from calls the President made during his first cabinet meeting in January calling on the protection of press freedom.

In April, news websites Maghreb Emergent, Radiom, and Interlignes along with a number of other sites were also blocked following the passage of a vague law (an amendment to the Penal Code) that criminalizes the spread of “false news” deemed harmful to “public order and state security,” and another law on Preventing and Combating Discrimination and Hate Speech.

Critics and activists say the new laws serve as cover for the government to crack down on freedoms. The law on false news fails to distinguish between news reports, social media, and news websites and stipulates prison terms ranging from two to five years and fines from 100,000 to 5000,000 Algerian dinars ($778 to $3,891).

Even reporters whose coverage has been described as neutral have been unable to evade arrest; in August, journalist Moncef Ait Kaci, who had previously worked as a correspondent for France 24, was arrested and detained for a few weeks after writing a letter lamenting the decision by authorities to bar him from leaving the country.

“It is terrible and unfortunate to be a young Algerian journalist and to suffer such injustices,” he wrote.

Dismissing criticism of the crackdown from rights groups, Tebboune has accused press watchdogs like Reporters Without Borders (RSF) of “destabilizing” the country— a tried and tested rhetoric adopted by Algerian leaders seeking to deflect blame by warning against the meddling of foreign hands in domestic affairs.

The high-profile imprisonment of journalist and RSF’s correspondent Khaled Drareni and the ban of the French television channel M6 have propelled international concerns of the worsening restrictions on freedom of expression, which were already under fire during the presidency of Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

This month, journalist Mustapha Bendjama was sentenced to two months in prison for “inciting an unarmed gathering” and “opposition to the conduct of the electoral operation.” Journalist Abdelkrim Zeghileche, who has been in prison since 23 June, was sentenced on November 8 to one year in prison, six months of which were suspended, for “undermining the person of the President of the Republic” and “spreading publications that could undermine national unity.” Zeghileche had also been convicted and fined for another offense earlier the same month.

In October, correspondent for El Khabar, Kaddour Atrous, was given a six month sentence for “defamation,” and prosecutors have sought a one year prison sentence against the publication director of news site Tout Sur L’Algerie for publishing an inter-ministerial decree.

Meanwhile activist Yacine Mebarki was handed a 10-year jail sentence for “offending Islam”—the longest sentence to be handed to a Hirak activist since protests began; prosecutors have also sought a two-year prison sentence for social media posts against journalist Fodil Boumala, who was released in March. Journalist El Kadi Ihsane, who is the director of censored independent news sites Radio.info and Maghreb Emergent, was summoned to a “preliminary investigation” by authorities.

They join several other reporters, such as Merzoug Touati and Ali Djamel Toubal, who was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in June for Facebook comments. Both remain in prison.

According to RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index, Algeria currently ranks 146 out of 180 countries—five places lower than in 2019.

Old habits die hard

While the scale of the current crackdown may be unprecedented, there was a steady stream of journalists and bloggers locked up for their content under Bouteflika’s presidency.

Similar to this year’s draft constitution process, in 2016 Algeria adopted constitutional reforms that included guarantees of freedom of assembly and of the press, as part of promises that no effort would be spared “to consolidate and extend freedom of expression.”

That very same year, however, saw British-Algerian journalist Mohamed Tamalt die in a prison hospital following a three-month hunger strike against his imprisonment for “defaming a public authority” for publishing a poem on Facebook insulting Bouteflika. The month prior, freelance journalist Hassan Bouras had been sentenced to one year in prison for his documentary on police violence.

During his first election campaign in 1999, Bouteflika referred to critical journalists dismissively as “gossiping old ladies in the steam bath” and another time, he remarked that “the terrorists with pens” were just as bad as “the ones with swords.”

Two years into Bouteflika’s presidency a libel law was passed which would see journalists in Algeria face up to three years in jail if found guilty of defaming public officials, including those in the military. The famous caricaturist Ali Dilem has continued his work on political satire despite being indicted several times following the law.

In 2004, the government jailed several journalists critical of its president and slapped a “temporary freeze” on the Arabic satellite channel al-Jazeera after it broadcast opposition figures openly criticizing Algerian generals and Bouteflika’s national reconciliation policy.

In 2006, Bouteflika oversaw a decree that prohibited the press from continuing to investigate human rights abuses during the civil war, as part of his hardline strategy avoiding accountability for officials in the upper echelons of the military and government.

In an unprecedented move the same year, Bouteflika announced a presidential pardon for journalists sentenced to prison for “gross insult to state officials, offending the president of the republic, injuring state institutions, defamation, and insult.”

The pardon applied to those who had been convicted after appeal, and saw the release of journalists like Mohamed Benchicou, the editor of Le Matin, who was charged with violating currency regulations in retaliation for his newspaper’s critical editorial line.

Crisis looms

Increased repression, coupled with persistent concerns over the government’s incapacity to handle the pandemic, and plummeting oil prices that spell disaster for Algeria’s economy, are all contributing factors to a tension threatening to boil over onto the streets.

While the crackdown on press and freedom of expression may silence dissent and bolster the state line in the short term, it cannot stifle dissent in the long-term. Satirical news sites like the popular El Manchar, which shut down its site earlier this year in protest to the repressive climate, has begun publishing content again. In October an initiative banding together Algeria’s leading journalists was also launched.

Tebboune’s descriptions of a “calmer climate” and promises of a “new Algeria” is at odds with the detention of the country’s youth, like 26-year-old poet Mohamed Tadjadit, who has been incarcerated since 23 August, in cities across the nation whose only crime was to express their political opinions.

While the new charter may seek to enshrine human rights like freedom of speech, theory into practice makes it all the more impossible when many of the constitution’s bylaws in relation to press freedom, political inclusion, family and human rights are voted on behind closed doors in a process which consistently lacks transparency.

It also does not aid in the government’s ability to garner trust in their promises of reform when so many constitutional amendment processes over the years have failed to actualize into real reforms.

Despite the Hirak securing the end of Bouteflika’s 20-year presidency last year and seeing many of his ministers and top aides behind bars, subsequent obstacles to democratization and social cohesion by the refusal of the regime to adhere to any political roadmap that does not guarantee its longevity has blocked any chance for genuine dialogue.

Without addressing much of the Hirak’s core concerns centered around popular democratic demands for reforms, it is unlikely the government’s age-old strategy of buying itself extra time with disingenuous reform will serve it well in the wider context of a crashing economy, looming popular unrest and recent escalations in the disputed Western Sahara region.

Tebboune’s displays this year of pardoning detainees in attempts to appease the Hirak have fallen short by the fact their spots have been quickly filled by many of the same people, and though his tenure is likely to be short, structural issues that he has failed to address will simply be passed onto the next carefully selected head of state.

Algeria needs to revise its criminal legislation to ensure that measures governing freedom of expression and association are aligned with fundamental human rights. Alternative measures to combat the spread of false information that do not restrict the right to freedom of expression should be the route adopted by the government, as well as the decriminalization of defamation.

However, as has become the norm in Algeria, until concrete action truly reflects promises of reform, it is unlikely the current situation will abate significantly amid concerns of increasing domestic turbulence.