Bleak prospects for journalists in Algeria

Monday, November 24, 1997

BLEAK PROSPECTS FOR JOURNALISTS IN ALGERIA

(Canadian Committee to Protect Journalists, 24 November 1997)

Algeria has been in the grip of a bloody civil war since 1991, when the army interceded in the electoral process to prevent the fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) from winning the parliamentary elections. The resulting conflict has claimed more than 60 000 lives.

The ongoing civil war has been utterly devastating to Algeria's citizens - particularly to journalists. Members of the media are victimized by the two warring groups. The Committee to Protect Journalists' (CPJ) Algeria, Year in Review: 1995 says "rebels use the assassination of journalists as a way to get into the news. And the government exploits the brutal murders of journalists and intellectuals as a propaganda tool to bolster international support for its all out war against barbarism." Journalists face censorship, prosecution and imprisonment - all of them work under the threat of death. The CPJ reports that as a direct result of the civil war, Algeria has been the most dangerous country in the world for journalists in 1995 and 1996. Most of the murders and attacks appear to be the work of Islamist opponents of the regime, especially the radical Armed Islamic Group (GIA).

Apart from the ruthless attacks on journalists by fundamentalists,Reporters sans frontières (RSF) reveals in the Algeria section of its 1997 Report that Algeria has ceased to be the "most free press in the Arab world." Independent reporting is stifled by the state monopoly on broadcasting and pro-government publications which unconditionally support state policies. In short, any independence by private media is punished by the government.

Government censorship takes many forms. In 1994 the Interior Ministry sent a secret directive to all members of the national media forbidding independent coverage of what it deemed to be security matters. The government's monopolizing the distribution of information has made independent news reporting very problematic, and very dangerous. Succumbing to the government intervention entails virtual self censorship. Blindly touting the government line exposes journalists to violent attacks by Muslim militants who see them merely as puppets of the government. Ignoring the dictates will see publications suspended or legal action by the Interior Ministry.

In addition to the blanket censorship of security matters, the authorities use more subtle means to constrain political discourse in the press. The government controls the supply of newsprint and owns the printing presses. It is thus able to put economic pressure on newspapers. As a result, the number of independent publications is dropping, according to CPJ.

The hard line taken toward widespread criticism of the 23 October local and regional elections does not bode well for an improvement in journalists' conditions in the near future.

Recent Developments

On 5 November of this year, a court ruled renowned journalist Omar Belhouchet, editor-in-chief of the daily El Watan, would have to spend 22 months in prison for harming Algerian national security and the State. An appeal hearing is scheduled for the end of this month. Belhouchet supporters were dismayed at the ruling because they believe his articles were legitimate criticisms on the state's policies on terrorism. See the 6 November 1997 edition of Arabic News for more details.

Also on 5 November, journalist Yasser Ben Miloud, a columnist for the independent newspaper El Watan, disappeared. He was last seen attending the trial of Omar Belhouchet, who, after his release pending a retrial, was subsequently summoned by police and questioned about Miloud's column. The article in question strongly criticized the Algerian government in the aftermath of recent municipal elections. See the International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX) Action Alert 6 November 1997 for more details.

Yassir Ben Miloud, reappeared late on 7 November. Miloud did not discuss his disappearance. However, he was interrogated by police all day on 8 November. See IFEX Action Alert 12 November 1997 for more details.

According to an article in the 11 November 1997 edition of the Arabic News, on 10 November six Algerian newspapers joined together to issue a statement protesting the arrest of Omar Belhouchet. The 6 papers were El Watan, La Tribune, L'Omboire, L'Algérie, Le Matin, and Al Khabar.

References and Further Information

* Arabic News
* Committee to Protect Journalists:

o Attacks on the Press in 1996: Algeria, Country Summary
o Algeria, Year in Review: 1995

* Reporters sans frontières

o 1997 Report: Algeria

# Click here for a list from IFEX of alerts on recent freedom of expression abuses in Algeria.