Fears Army is poised to rein in the Press
Algeria Interface, 01 February 2002
01/02/02 – Four defamation cases against Algeria’s print press have fuelled fears the regime is clamping down on freedom of expression.
Algiers, 01/02/02 – An amendment to the penal code in June 2001 introducing a sweeping definition of criminal defamation that raised press hackles has at last confirmed fears that the regime would use it to rein in the press.
Ali Dilem, an internationally renowned political cartoonist on French-language daily La Liberté was the first of the four journalists to be cited in defamation cases.
He reported to the Algiers police earlier this week to answer charges relating to a libel complaint from the defence ministry, also the plaintiff in a case brought against El Watan’s Salima Tlemçani. The offending article was one she wrote about the intelligence services in December 2001.
The third journalist to receive a police summons under the terms of the defamation law was Sid Ahmed Semiane, a columnist from French-language daily, Le Matin. He showed little surprise, commenting « since the amendment to the criminal code, this kind of action against the media was to be expected ».
Managing director of Le Matin, Mohamed Benchicou was the last of the four to report to the police, again following action by the defence ministry over a cartoon published on January 5th lampooning two generals sporting insignia shaped like the euro currency.
The defamation law provides for harsh penalties ranging from 1,000 DZD to 500,000 DZD (the average monthly wage is 6,000 DZD, i.e. less than ?90) and between two months to two years in prison.
Communication minister, Mohamed Abbou, tried to play down the significance of the quick success of defamation complaints, telling Le Matin that there was « no ill will » behind them.
Said Sid Ahmed Semiane, echoing fears that criminal code could be used more widely to stifle freedom of expression: « It’s not restricted to journalists, since it’s alleged that MPs and politicians are to be prosecuted. I believe the principle of freedom of expression is in danger… The Algerian government seems to be ready to stop at nothing. Hasn’t it just flouted [the association agreement with the EU] just a month after signing it by refusing to see an EU mission just because it was inquiring into human rights? »
The National Journalists Union (SNJ) echoed the malaise in the profession with a defiant statement on January 29th saying the « corporation would not be swayed after undergoing so many ordeals ».
French-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has written to interior minister, Yazid Zerhouni, expressing its concern that the Algerian media may have to brace itself for prosecution only months ahead of slated parliamentary elections.