The plot thickens over planned curbs on press freedom

The plot thickens over planned curbs on press freedom

Algeria Interface, 02.02.2001, www.algeria-interface.com/new/article.php-article_id=126&lng=e.htm

A document leaked to the press has revealed the authorities have worrying plans to curtail and control freedom of the press.

Algiers, 02/02/01 – Arabic daily paper El Youm recently published the leaked draft of controversial proposals for new legislation to curb media freedom that have put Algeria’s journalists on edge.

El Youm’s disclosures come just as the government is preparing an amendment to the penal code that provides for much tougher penalties for libel and slander.

They include fines of between $700 and $70,000 and prison terms of up to three years for any journalist or publication found guilty of slandering official state bodies and institutions.

The vast majority of privately owned news publications have condemned the amendment as a serious threat to the freedom of expression. Matters have now been compounded by the draft legislation on press freedom which will repeal the more liberal Information Code, passed in 1990 and sometimes described as a penal code for journalists.

The official justification for the new draft is that « the changes the media have undergone since 1989 » call for much tighter control over publications and print. A publisher wishing to launch a newspaper will have to obtain permission from the public prosecutor, whereas he or she currently only has to register.

The Ministry of Communication will also have the power to order the suspension or closure of any form of publication – and that will, significantly, include « publications diffused by means of electronic media ».

As for the state-owned press and media, it will be straitjacketed. The draft bill provides for the creation of a watchdog, the « media standards authority », that will enjoy exorbitant powers. There is as yet no hint as to whether professional journalists will be equally represented on the new body as they were on former media standards authority.

The new proposals do innovate in one way, however, theoretically clearing the way for the lifting of the state monopoly on radio and television. They will now come under the authority of the Minister of Communication and the audiovisual regulation authority which will grant authorisations to applicants who meet the required specifications.

The Minister of Communication, Mahieddine Amimour, who enjoys close ties with Bouteflika, denied the draft bill is his doing in an interview to the French-language daily Jeune Indépendant on January 30. He did however confirm that a new information code was being drawn up and that journalists would be brought in.

He went on to add, wrongly, that journalists were not involved in drawing up the Information Code in 1990.

Disregarding the state of emergency and the close control the state exercises over the television and radio in violation of the 1990 Information Code, Mahieddine Amimour claims that the audiovisual is open, but it is « no Speakers’ Corner ». His view of press freedom harks back to the days of the single party when he permitted only propaganda.

The draft is probably the work of some of Bouteflika’s close aids who believe it is time to reign in the press after a decade of hard-won freedom for which dozens of journalists have paid with their lives.

Tarik Rezzak