The authorities blew hot and cold towards the country’s media in 2006. A presidential amnesty for journalists convicted of press offences and the release of several imprisoned journalists at the beginning of the year was not followed by a long-awaited reform of the press laws.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s 5 July amnesty for journalists convicted of “defamation” and “insulting state institutions” freed many journalists from legal harassment but repression of the media continued with further prosecutions and several editors still feared their papers would be shut down, as the daily Le Matin was in 2004. At least five journalists were arrested during the year.
The press laws still allow imprisonment, especially for “referring to the president in offensive, insulting or defamatory terms,” and a new measure in February concerning implementation of the national peace and reconciliation charter provided for five years in jail plus fines for anyone who “uses the effects of a national tragedy to undermine” the state or “harm the reputation of its officials” or the country’s international image. This wording can be interpreted in many ways.
Using the law to harass the media
The trials of journalists that began in 2006 showed very well how the regime uses the legal system against them and the initial verdicts were the start of a predictable process. Several journalists told Reporters Without Borders they had not been summoned to their own trial. The Algiers suburban court of Hussein-Dey sentenced the managing editor of the daily Ech-Chourouk, Ali Fadil, and journalist Naila Berrahal each to six months in prison and a fine of 20,000 dinars (€220) on 31 October for libelling Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. The paper was also suspended for two months and ordered to pay 500,000 dinars (€5,500) in damages to Gaddafi.
A court in Jijel (360 km east of Algiers) sentenced Omar Belhouchet, managing editor of the daily El Watan, and columnist Chawki Amari to three months in prison in their absence on 25 December for libelling a senior civil servant in an article in June exposing corruption.
Journalists also discovered in 2006 the existence of legal complaints and convictions they had not known about. Arezki Ait-Larbi, correspondent in Algeria of the French dailies Le Figaro and Ouest-France, found out when his passport renewal application was refused that he had been given a six-month jail sentence in December 1997. A complaint had been filed by a former head of the justice ministry’s sentences implementation department, whose indifference to the torture of prisoners in Lambese prison the journalist had criticised in an article.
Mohammed Benchicou, managing editor of Le Matin, was freed in June after completing the two-year prison sentence he received in June 2004 for violating the law on movement of assets after being arrested at Algiers airport with a cash voucher for a large sum in dinars. At the height of Bouteflika’s reelection campaign, in February 2004, he had put out a pamphlet calling the president an “imposter.” The same year, the paper’s headquarters had been auctioned off to pay extra tax debts and the paper had to shut down after a state-owned printing firm also insisted on collecting its debts.
Algeria was also affected by the row in the Arab world over the cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed first printed in the Danish press. Kamal Bousaâd and Berkane Bouderbala, editors of the weeklies Errissala and Essafir, were each imprisoned for a month in February for reprinting them, after the communications ministry filed a complaint based on the criminal code’s article 144b paragraph 2 allowing for between three and five years imprisonment for “anyone offending the Prophet or emissaries of God or belittling the doctrine and principles of Islam.” Their case is continuing. The heads of the state-run TV stations Canal Algérie and A3 were also dismissed for the same reason.