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Hafnaoui Ghoul, victim of the taming of Algeria’s independent media

Hafnaoui Ghoul is correspondent of the daily paper El-Youm in Djelfa (270 km south of Algiers) and head of the regional office of the Algerian Human Rights League (LADDH). He was imprisoned from May to November this year for libel after exposing corruption by rominent people and local potentates.

His ordeal, from when he was put under house arrest in February 2003 until he was conditionally freed from prison on 25 November this year, is a good example of the strong pressure put on the countryís provincial journalists.

He was jailed barely two months after the April 2004 reelection of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and was a victim of the intrigues and manœuvres of the government in its efforts to tame the independent media.

« I’m very happy to be free. It’s a surprise but this is not the end of the fight for press freedom and human rights», he told Reporters Without Borders on his release. Prosecution is still hanging over him and his appeal is pending before the supreme court. »

His reports in El Youm have always annoyed the prefect (governor) of Djelfa, who is not used to being challenged by a journalist in a region where social relations are still feudal. Ghoul implicated local officials, for example, in the death of a dozen babies at Djelfa hospital.

He told the newspaper Le Soir d’Algérie on 17 May about threats and pressure on other local reporters in Djelfa after the prefect closed down the prefecture’s media department. He said some journalists were followed on a daily basis.

He was thrown in prison on 24 May and, like many other Algerian journalists, was extensively hounded by legal officials. As his jail sentence was ending, the Djelfa court sentenced him in another case to several months in prison and heavy fines. About 20 libel suits were filed against him by the prefect and local officials. When he was conditionally released, he still had about five months of his sentence to serve.

He was even jailed for two months in August for sending a letter to his eldest daughter Samia in contravention of prison rules. Long extracts from the letter were printed by the newspaper As-Sabah.

« When I chose a pen as my weapon, I was aware of the dangers, especially in this region, where evil holds sway and fraud is common », he wrote. « The hogra, exclusion, poverty, illiteracy and unemployment are all rife here. I know this letter will lead to another court appearance, but free speech and human rights inspire me to push further along the path I have chosen. Despite the risks, I cannot stay quiet or bow to pressure. »

He was freed after a visit to Djelfa by Bouteflika during his campaign to destroy the country’s last stock of landmines.

Ghoul was transferred from Ourgla prison to Djelfa prison on 24 November and released the next day without explanation. He had applied for a conditional release on 23 November with the encouragement of prison authorities and the request was granted within 48 hours.

Two other journalists still imprisoned in Algeria

Mohammed Benchicou, editor of the daily paper Le Matin, closed since July, began serving a two-year prison sentence on 14 June for "violating the law on exchange control and capital movements". He is being held at El-Harrach prison, near Algiers.

Le Matin opposed Bouteflika’s April re-election campaign. In February, Benchicou had produced a leaflet about him called "Bouteflika, an Algerian fraud".

Ahmed Benaoum, head of the Er-rai El-Aam media group, has been in prison since 28 June in Oran. He was about to appear in court in a libel case when he was summonsed and then taken straight to jail by order of a court acting on a complaint by a state housing body. About 50 suits alleging tax evasion and libel were filed against him by government institutions, local officials and private individuals.

Benaoum’s media group published the daily papers Er-rai and Le Journal de l’Ouest, as well as the weekly Détective, up until August 2003, when the state printers required newspapers to pay off their debts to them. The papers did not have the money to do so and therefore stopped appearing.

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