President Abdelaziz Bouteflika told a press conference in early June 2003 that he supported press freedom. But he accused the Algerian media of making "every effort" to blacken the country’s image abroad. He said "no media or journalist" had been persecuted "in any way."
But there was no let-up in 2003 in legal harassment, prosecutions, court sentences, intimidation and physical attacks on journalists, especially those with the local independent media. Two leading figures of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), Abassi Madani and Ali Belhadj, were freed in the summer after completing prison sentences. The authorities banned the foreign media from covering Belhadj’s release in case he made a statement.
As power struggles continued inside the regime, newspapers kept up strong attacks on President Bouteflika and other top officials. The daily Liberté ran photos of the country’s leaders in August with the headline: "All thieves. Explain yourselves!" Le Matin had one saying "State property being stolen" and the daily L’Expression, once a Bouteflika supporter, said it would not back him for re-election and denounced his regime’s abuses and injustices.
The mounting wave of harsh criticism, especially of the president and his interior minister, was countered by broad harassment of the media under article 144b of the criminal code, which provided for between two and 12 months imprisonment and fines of between 50,000 and 250,000 dinars (between 500 and 2,500 euros) for insulting or defaming the president, parliament or the army. Journalist Hassan Bourras was given a two-year jail sentence as part of this campaign.
The authorities used a range of commercial and financial devices to punish critical newspapers. The state-owned printing works asked all their privately-owned newspaper customers in August to clear their debts and an extra tax bill almost forced the daily Le Matin to close. Such moves were helped by the lax management practices of most media, which traditionally do not publish their accounts, except for the Quotidien d’Oran and El-Watan.
Prime minister Ahmed Ouyahia told a press conference in August that only the papers with the biggest debts had subsequently closed and asked: "Did any paper that paid its debts have any problems?" Those who did not pay had not been banned, he said, proving the measure was purely commercial.
About 30 other papers had much bigger debts than the six independent ones that closed but they were all slavish supporters of the regime and were not targeted. They were well protected against such action and received various forms of government help. Le Jour d’Algérie and Le Concitoyen, founded in 2003 by Bouteflika associates, immediately got a flow of government advertising revenue despite their very small circulation.
A "No Newspapers Day" was staged on 22 September to protest against the legal harassment of the independent press. Eleven papers took part, signing a public appeal on 14 September - Le Matin, El Khabar, El Watan, Liberté, Le Soir d’Algérie, L’Expression, El-Fajr, Akhar Saâ, Er-Rai, Info Soir and La Dépêche de Kabylie. But many independent dailies, including Le Quotidien d’Oran, La Tribune and El Youm, refused to join in, objecting that a group of editors were claiming to speak for all independent papers.
The pressure on the media extended to all institutions. The interior ministry refused to allow many associations to be set up for fear they would encourage popular groups such as independent trade unions or human rights bodies. Civil liberties steadily declined.
Five journalists who disappeared before 2003
Five journalists "disappeared" between 1994 and 1997. Two were kidnapped by armed Islamist groups and three others appear to have been abducted by the security forces.
Farouk Ksentini, head of the National Advisory Commission to Promote and Protect Human Rights (CNCPPDH, which replaced the ONDH), told the French daily Le Monde in January 2003 that there were definitely no prisoners being held secretly by the authorities anywhere, including in the Blida and other detention camps set up in the Sahara after 1992. In other words, there were no survivors. Anxious relatives asked the government for information but got no reply.
President Bouteflika named a seven-member commission on 21 September to look into the cases and report back within 18 months, with interim reports before then. This appeared to show what Bouteflika said was the government’s determination to fulfil its responsibility to look after citizens and their property. He said the issue of the disappeared people could not be "properly understood out of its historical context of the presence of bloody terrorism" in Algeria. The commission includes a journalist from the independent press, a doctor and a judge.
Mohamed Hassaine, a local correspondent for the daily Alger Républicain, was kidnapped on 28 February 1994 by four men as he left his home in Larbatache (Boumerdès province) to go to work. Friends and family said the kidnappers belonged to armed Islamist groups. Ex-members of these groups said he was murdered the same day.
Kaddour Bousselham, correspondent for the state-owned daily Horizons in Hacine (in the western region of Mascara), was kidnapped on 29 October 1994. He and his family had been living in a tent since their home was destroyed by an earthquake. He was reportedly tortured and then had his throat slit by an armed Islamist group led by Emir Zoubir. The justice ministry said an enquiry was opened on 27 November 1994 but the case was closed on 18 February 1995 for lack of evidence.
Djamil Fahassi, of the national radio station Chaîne 3, was abducted by two men as he left a restaurant on 6 May 1995. He was forced into a car, which several witnesses said then went through a police roadblock near El-Harrach prison with no difficulty. The justice ministry said an enquiry had been opened and the case was being considered by an Algiers court. The government human rights monitoring body, ONDH, said Fahassi had not been questioned or arrested by police.
After asking the court to speed up the case, Fahassi’s wife was summoned several times by police for questioning. But when the special commission was set up in September 2003, the enquiry stopped, pending the commission’s examination of the case.
Aziz Bouabdallah, of the daily El-Alam Es-Siyassi, was taken from his Algiers home on 12 April 1997 by several "very well-dressed men in plainclothes who looked like members of military security," his family said. He was forced into a white car. Several days later, a friend of the family, a captain in the intelligence services (DRS), said he was responsible for the operation, but said Bouabdallah had "done nothing wrong, except write a libellous article."
Two weeks later, as the family tried to get further information, the officer had disappeared. The ONDH quoted police as saying the journalist had been "kidnapped by four unidentified armed men." The Algiers court dismissed the case for lack of evidence on 20 May 2000 but this ruling was set aside on appeal on 27 June that year.
Salah Kitouni, editor of the national weekly El-Nour, suspended in October 1992, went to Constantine police station on 9 July 1996 where he had been questioned a few days earlier. His family never heard from him again. They were told by the public prosecutor in March 1997 that police had handed him over on 19 July 1996 to Fifth Military Region’s research and investigation centre. The family got no further replies to the many letters they wrote to the ONDH, the national ombudsman and President Bouteflika himself.
A journalist imprisoned
Hassan Bourras, correspondent in the western town of El Bayadh for several dailies, including the regional El-Djazairi and the national El Youm, was sentenced on 6 November 2003 by a local court to two years in prison for libel and banned from working as a journalist for five years, the severest punishment of a journalist since President Bouteflika came to power. He was also the correspondent in El Bayadh of the Algerian Human Rights League.
The local prosecutor had complained about two articles in El Djazairi, one saying his wife had forged a document to get a job and the other reporting illegal property deals by prominent local people. Bourras had proof of his accusations as well as witnesses. He was conditionally freed on 2 December and the prison sentence was dropped at a 23 December appeal hearing and replaced by a 100,000 dinars (1,200 euros) fine and an order to pay damages of 10,000 dinars (120 euros).
Journalists physically attacked
Hassan Bourras, correspondent for the daily El-Djazairi in the western town of El-Bayadh, was beaten up on 20 January 2003 by two men, including the son of the secretary of the provincial branch of the National Organisation of Mujahideens. He was off work for two weeks as a result. Six days earlier, he had been given a six-month suspended jail sentence for libelling the son by publishing a letter from a member of the organisation to the religious affairs ministry criticising the secretary for his past record.
Several journalists covering a march by the Society for Peace Movement on 2 April were beaten and insulted by police.
Harassment and obstruction
The son of Nora Ben Yagoub, correspondent for Le Jeune Indépendant in Djelfa, was kidnapped by armed men for several hours on 12 March 2003. She said he was forced to undress but resisted and managed to escape. The journalist said she had been threatened and harassed for several months by local gangsters she criticised in print.
Ali Dilem, cartoonist for the daily paper Liberté, was given a six-month suspended jail sentence and fined 20,000 dinars (200 euros) by an Algiers court on 20 May for a drawing a cartoon of armed forces chief Gen Mohamed Lamari that appeared on 15 January 2002. Publisher Abrous Outoudert was fined 40,000 dinars (400 euros) and the paper 300,000 dinars (3,000 euros). Dilem had been fined 20,000 dinars (200 euros) on 31 December 2002 for a cartoon about the assassination of President Boudiaf that appeared on 16 January that year.
The communications ministry banned visiting and locally-based foreign journalists on 2 July from covering the release from prison after completing their sentences of two leading figures in the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), Abassi Madani and Ali Belhadj, and ordered them to stay in their hotels.
The next day, the government ordered the deportation of visiting foreign reporters, including those of the French TV stations TF1, France 2, France 3 and the Chaîne parlementaire (LCP), the Belgian TV station RTBF and the reporter of the French daily Le Monde. When Belhadj came out of the Ben Badis mosque on 4 July after prayers, police seized the cameras of waiting photographers. They were returned later minus the film.
Six daily papers - Le Soir d’Algérie, Liberté, Le Matin, El Khabar, L’Expression and Er-Rai - were asked by their printers on 14 August to clear all their debts or face not being published. Four days later, only El-Khabar, which has its own printing press in Algiers, appeared on the streets of the capital.
The order to pay came after the six papers reported on many scandals involving top government officials and their associates. In July, public attention focused on a column in Le Matin that regularly made disclosures about President Bouteflika and his entourage, especially his brother and adviser, Said, and the interior minister.
The six papers said in a statement on 16 August that the government was using "commercial tricks" to punish and silence independent papers that had revealed scandals instead of answering the serious corruption charges made. Liberté and El-Khabar reappeared on 21 August having paid their debts, as did Le Matin (27 August) and Le Soir d’Algérie (1 September).
Police summoned Farid Alilat, managing editor of the daily Liberté, as well as the paper’s editor, Said Chekri, coordination chief Ali Ouafek and journalist Rafik Hamoun on 26 August. They went to the police on 28 August and were sent before the public prosecutor and examining magistrate on 3 September, when they were conditionally freed.
Seven Liberté journalists - including Alilat, editor Chekri, cartoonist Dilem, publisher Abrous Outoudert, columnist Mustapha Hammouche, and journalists Mourad Belaïdi and Rafik Benkaci - were summoned on 1 September. Belaïdi and Hammouche presented themselves on 3 September.
Mohamed Benchicou, managing editor of Le Matin, and Dilem were arrested on 8 September, taken to Algiers central police station and served with formal summonses signed by the state prosecutor. Three days earlier, they had told a press conference they would not respond to any more summonses and would only appear before a court. Their arrest caused a crowd to gather in the street and three photographers were arrested and taken to a police station, then released.
Benchicou and Dilem were charged on 9 September with insulting the head of state under article 144b of the criminal code and conditionally freed.
Benchicou was searched at Algiers airport on 23 August as he returned from France with a large sum of money in the form of bank drafts. The finance ministry filed a complaint against him for violating foreign exchange and money transfer regulations. A statement was drawn up and he was put on probation on 27 August.
On 22 October, he received notice of a tax inspection, though he had already had one at the beginning of the year. He and his colleagues at the paper then faced an extra tax bill of 16 million dinars (160,000 euros) and a threat of closing the paper if the money was not paid by 20 November. The timing of the move was seen as an effort by the authorities to silence a leading critic of the president and his entourage.
Ahmed Benaoum, boss of the Er-Rai El-Aam press group, was arrested on 11 September on the basis of a complaint against him for forgery relating to two civil matters dating back 20 years. Two days later, he was arrested a second time for another matter, while inside a court at Es Senia (Oran) appearing before an examining magistrate. He was put on probation and his passport confiscated. The next day, a court in Sedikkia released him.
He was jailed again on 7 October when he presented himself (still on probation) at Oran police station in response to a summons by fiscal police. Er-Rai El-Aam journalists said it was all part of police harassment and intimidation that began in August.
Fouad Boughanem, managing editor of Le Soir d’Algérie, who had been summoned three times, was arrested on 16 September in front of the press centre in Algiers, taken to the main police station and freed a few hours later. Journalists who came to demonstrate outside against his detention were briefly arrested. They included: Malika Boussouf, a senior editor of Le Soir D’Algérie, Badreddine Manâa, the paper’s editor-in-chief, and Rabah Abdallah, secretary-general of the national journalists’ unit, SNJ.
The trial opened in Abane-Ramdane (Algiers) on 23 September of four people arrested on 8 September at the same time as Benchicou and Dilem - Fatma Zohra Khalfi, of the government news agency APS, Yacine Teguia, of the Social Democratic Movement (which Le Matin supports), and Matin editor Youcef Rezzoug and his wife.
The case was adjourned until 31 December after defence lawyers protested that the courthouse had been surrounded by police. Several people, including Dilem and the Tizi-Ouzou spokesman for the Aârch grassroots Kabyle protest movement, Belaid Abrika, were briefly arrested for gathering outside the courthouse.
The four accused were given suspended two-month prison sentences on 31 December by an Algiers court and fined 2,000 dinars (23 euros) for "illegal assembly and disturbing the peace."
Le Soir d’Algérie managing editor Fouad Boughanem and two columnists, Hakim Laâlam and Mohamed Bouhamidi, were arrested at the paper’s offices on 2 October and taken to Algiers central police station. The columnists refused to sign a statement or reply to questions, saying they would only speak before a judge. They were freed a few hours later. Kamel Amarni, who should also have been arrested but was absent, was picked up on 5 October at the paper’s offices by provincial security agents apparently acting on orders from the state prosecutor. All four appeared before an Algiers examining magistrate on 6 October accused of libelling President Bouteflika (article 144 of the criminal code).
Liberté managing editor Farid Alilat received a police summons in Algiers on 6 October for questioning about an article by Le Soir d’Algérie columnist Hakim Laâm that appeared in Liberté on 21 August criticising the enforced closure of Le Matin, L’Expression and Le Soir d’Algérie. In line with the joint decision by independent editors, Alilat refused to obey the summons.
Ahmed Oukili, managing editor of the daily Er-Rai El-Aam, and Slimane Bensayah, editor of the daily Le Journal de l’Ouest, were arrested on 8 October, taken to Algiers central police station and later released.
Kamel Amarni, of Le Soir d’Algérie, was arrested at the paper on 9 October, taken to Algiers central police station and later released.
Ahmed Fattani, managing editor of L’Expression, was arrested at his office in Algiers on 13 October, taken to the central police station and questioned about articles that appeared on an Internet website while the paper did not appear between 16 and 18 August.
The same day, Mohamed Mokadem, resident Algiers correspondent for the London-based daily El-Hayat, was barred from a press conference given by prime minister Ahmed Ouyahia. He was told his name was not on a list of accredited journalists, though he had sent a registered letter the day before asking for accreditation. He said the ban was probably because of two articles he wrote in El-Khabar (under the pseudonym Anis Rahmani) revealing the theft by top regime officials of housing belonging to the foreign ministry and the theft of housing involving the prime minister’s wife.
Le Matin columnist Sid Ahmed Semiane (known as S.A.S.) was sentenced in his absence by an Algiers court on 4 November to six months in jail and fined 40,000 dinars (400 euros) for libel. The defence ministry had filed more than 20 complaints about him.
An Algiers court the same day gave Liberté managing editor Farid Alilat a suspended four-month prison sentence and a 100,000 dinars (1,000 euros) fine for "insulting" President Buteflika. Journalist Rafik Hamou was fined the same amount. The papers was fined two million dinars (20,000 euros) under article 144b of the criminal code for a front-page story on 11 August headed "All thieves."
The story reproduced material first published by El-Khabar accusing several top officials of stealing foreign ministry housing. But El-Khabar was not prosecuted.
Le Matin managing editor Mohamed Benchicou was ordered on 5 December by the Algiers public prosecutor to present himself for questioning on 7 December in connection with a column he wrote and another by Ines Chahinez. Benchicou did not obey the summons.
Tayeb Bendjemaa, correspondent of El Khabar in the eastern town of Khenchela, was arrested in a hotel in Constantine on 19 December in connection with charges he had been cleared of in 2001. He was freed the next day.