Algeria: Crackdown on Journalists

Le Matin's Publisher Mr. Benchicou, minutes before his sentencing on June 14, 2004.  (Photo: Hocine Zaourar/AFP-Getty Images)

The Algerian government has jailed several journalists critical of its president and slapped a "temporary freeze" on the Arabic satellite channel al-Jazeera.

It is the most severe attack on the freedom of the press since President M. Abdelaziz Bouteflika came to power in April 1999. The North African country has one of the freest print medias in the Arab world.

The al-Jazeera ban followed a broadcast a week earlier in which opposition figures openly criticized Algerian generals and President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's national reconciliation policy.

Mr. Benchicou, the publisher of Algeria's private Le Matin newspaper has been sentenced to two years in prison on charges of financial impropriety. But critics believe he's being punished for a book he published in February, entitled, "Bouteflika, an Algerian Imposture."

"We are stunned by the severity of the sentence against Benchicou," commented Paris-based press watchdog, Reporters Sans Frontieres (Reporters Without Borders) in a press release. "The violation of foreign exchange controls is a pretext to silence this journalist….The imprisonment of Hafnaoui Ghoul on 24 May, who denounced local officials' misuse of public funds, and that of Benchicou, whose newspaper did not hesitate to bring to light serious political dysfunctions, illustrate the government's fierce repression of a segment of the press."

Journalists in Algeria face up to three years in jail if found guilty of defaming public officials, including military ones, under a libel law passed in 2001. There are currently almost 100 such cases in the courts.

The conflict between the authorities and Algeria's privately owned press escalated during the run-up to the presidential elections of April 8. Most of the main national dailies campaigned against the re-election of Bouteflika. Algeria’s television and radio stations are all government owned.

The legitimacy of Bouteflika’s electoral triumph – officially, he received 83.49% of the vote – was called into question in numerous editorials. The result was described as "worthy of Kim II Sung" (El Watan), a "coup d'Etat," (Le Soir d'Algérie), and "an electoral hold-up" (Liberté).

The government-controlled newspaper, El Moudjahid, by contrast, asserted "Algeria can proudly call itself the cradle of democracy in the Arab world."

During his campaign, Bouteflika expressed deep hostility towards the opposition newspapers: “the evil that this press has done to the country is comparable to that of the terrorists….”

The crackdown on press freedom comes at a time when Algeria is re-entering the international community after years of isolation. The country is emerging from a decade of violence in which 150,000 people died, most of them at the hands of Islamic terrorists, according to human rights groups.

In particular, Algeria is now enjoying closer relations with the United States. In April, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, William J. Burns "conveyed President Bush's warm congratulations to president Bouteflika on his re-election," adding that the April election "was a very positive and important milestone on the road to democracy."

The U.S. spent $1 million dollars to help Algeria, along with Saudi Arabia and Yemen, in its bid to become part of the World Trade Organization. But America is mainly interested in Algeria as a partner in its war against terrorism. The U.S. Army plans to spend $125 million over the next five years on its Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism initiative, in order to prevent groups allied to al-Qaeda from gaining a foothold in the region.

Algeria now runs the risk of losing the international respect it has gained for having an independent press.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has decided to relaunch its media crisis centre in Algeria, which was set up in the mid-1990’s to assist journalists in the midst of a murderous terror campaign by fundamentalists who targeted journalists among other professional groups. At that time almost 100 journalists and media staff were killed.

“We have to build a new alliance of solidarity between Algerian journalists and their colleagues in Europe and around the world,” said Aidan White, General Secretary of the IFJ in a statement posted on their Website. “These latest actions must be challenged, our colleagues must be set free and the government must respect international standards of press freedom.”