The End of Freedom of the Press?
After the young people's revolts of October 1988, which, after nearly three decades, brought the one-party regime of the FLN (Front de libération nationale, National Liberation Front) to the point of implosion, freedom of the press was introduced in Algeria along with the multiple party system.
Since then Algeria has enjoyed a degree of press freedom and a variety of newspapers the likes of which are unknown anywhere in the Arab world – with the exception of Lebanon – or on the African continent for that matter – excepting South Africa.
During the civil war years, from 1992/93 to 1998, the Algerians managed to defend this achievement, albeit at the price of over 60 murdered journalists in the first four years of the conflict. But nowadays freedom of the press appears to be in serious danger.
The judgment was felled without commentary: two years imprisonment without parole! On August 11 the appellate court in Algiers confirmed the sentence of the trial court, which had been passed down in mid-June 2004 in the capital district of El-Harrasch. Mohammed Benchicou, publisher of the Postcommunist Republican daily paper Le Matin, would remain in prison.
The next morning, every single caricaturist in the Algerian newspapers published a picture showing judges either hanging from marionette strings or on the telephone – taking orders from the political powers that be.
"Gossiping old ladies in the steam bath"
Algerian President Bouteflika, re-elected this April, has shown a very limited appreciation for a free press. During his first election campaign in spring 1999, he referred to critical journalists dismissively as "gossiping old ladies in the steam bath." On another occasion shortly thereafter he remarked that "the terrorists with pens" were just as bad as "the ones with swords."
On May 17, 2001 he passed new restrictive criminal law provisions, which call for high penalties as well as three to twelve-month imprisonment for insulting the president or organs of state. This resulted in a rash of lawsuits lodged by the Defense Ministry, crowding courtrooms well into 2003.
The famous caricaturist Ali Dilem (artist for the daily paper Liberté), for example, always just as disrespectful of the military as he is of the Islamists and the President, has been indicted several times.
Repression of journalists
In the case of Benchicou, who, among other things, was entangled in a series of conflicts with the Minister of the Interior, Yazid Zerhouni, and whose relationship with President Bouteflika was marked by fierce mutual hostility, the officials took a different approach.
He was not put behind bars for freely expressing his opinions in the press, but was instead accused of committing a "non-political" financial crime.
On August 23, 2003 Benchicou was arrested by the border police at the Algiers airport upon his return from Paris. Among his belongings they found so-called "bons de caisse," bank savings certificates with which one can withdraw a fixed amount from a bank for a period of one to two years. The border police claimed that this constituted a "violation of the bills of exchange acts," which are designed to prevent illegal export of capital.
But there are at least two catches here. First of all, the bank papers the editor-in-chief was carrying were not discovered in his briefcase as he was leaving the country, but upon his return to Algiers – so he can hardly have been taking money out of the country illegally.
Second, the savings certificates were made out in Algerian dinars, and could therefore not be cashed in any other country. Therefore, any illegal export of capital can more or less be ruled out.
Newspaper closing as revenge
Nevertheless, not only has the editor-in-chief now been trapped behind bars since the beginning of August 2004, but his paper, Le Matin, has had to halt operations.
State revenue offices suddenly asserted their claim to tax back payments, which the regime had in the past always de facto failed to collect from private newspapers. Now, in these tense times, taxes represent a weapon that can be used against the papers.
The authorities set an extremely short payment period for the back taxes, and initiated foreclosure proceedings on Le Matin's headquarters in record time. The editorial department found itself without offices and financing, and deep in debt. The last edition of the paper came out on August 3, 2004.
Many journalists are affected
Benchicou and his editorial staff are by no means the only Algerian journalists whose freedom and livelihoods are threatened. Ghoul Hafnaoui, a correspondent for several Algerian daily papers and an activist in a human rights group in Djelfa, 300 kilometers south of Algiers, was sentenced in June 2004 to two months in prison without parole for insulting local dignitaries.
He had dared to point out their failure to prevent the death of thirteen infants in a local hospital. In appeals proceedings in July the sentence was extended to three months, and 39 additional suits were brought by nomenclaturists and officials.
On August 10, 2004 Hafnaoui launched a hunger strike, which he had to break off two weeks later due to his endangered health. His present sentence ends in mid-September, but two new trials await him upon his release.
On June 28 the director of the Oran newspaper Er-Rei El-Aam (Public Opinion), moderate Islamist Ahmed Bennaoum, was arrested when officials lodged a complaint against him.
And finally, on June 30, the Algerian government revoked the accreditation for the Al-Jazira television station, based in Qatar, meaning that its correspondent, Algerian citizen Mohammed Daho, can no longer legally carry out his work here.
The regime objected to TV discussion programs in which untrue allegations about Algeria were supposedly being broadcast on Al-Jazira. Correspondent Mohammed Daho himself, who had always been careful to remain inconspicuous and not to offend anyone, was not the focus of any complaints.
© Qantara.de 2004
Translation from German: Jennifer Taylor-Gaida