Journalists get three months in prison for accusing prefect of corruption

Reporters Without Borders

Press release

26 December 2006


Journalists get three months in prison for accusing prefect of corruption

Reporters Without Borders today condemned the three-month prison sentences passed by a court in eastern city of Jijel yesterday on Omar Belhouchet, the editor of the daily El Watan, and Chawki Amari, one if his journalists, for libelling the local prefect in an article last June accusing him of corruption. They were also fined 1 million dinars (10,900 euros).

“Algeria must put an end to imprisonment for defamation, which is still being used to gag journalists,” the press freedom organisation said. “These sentences make us fear a new wave of abusive libel suits and arrests that would mark a return to the repressive practices of the past after signs of improvement since the start of the year.”

A pardon issued by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in July for all journalists convicted of defamation and “insulting” the country’s institutions had raised hopes of an improvement in press freedom . Reporters Without Borders regrets that the pardon was not accompanied by changes to the law.

The sentences handed down yesterday by a court in Jijel (360 km east of Algiers) were the result of a libel suit brought by the prefect over an article published on 17 June. The hearing was held in the absence of the two defendants. Amari told Reporters Without Borders he did not get a court summons and did not even know there had been a trial until the verdict was announced.

He and Belhouchet intend to appeal and will not have to go to prison until the appeal court confirms their sentences.

Ali Fodil, the editor of the daily Ech-Chourouk, is also the target of a lawsuit by the prefect over an article he published last summer making similar allegations, but his case will not be heard until 14 January. In Fodil’s case, the prosecutor has requested a three-month prison sentence and a fine of 50,000 dinars (544 euros).

Meanwhile, Salah Mokhtari of the national daily El Djazaïr News was arrested on 18 December in Médéa, a town 80 km south of Algiers where he had gone to cover a story. When he was taken to the prosecutor’s office the following day, he was told four arrest warrants were pending against him from 2004 and 2005 for alleged libel in stories he had written for the Arabic-language weekly El Kawalis, for which he was working at the time.

Mokhtari, who had never previously received any summons in connection with these cases, was finally accorded a provisional release yesterday, after being held for a week. He is to appear before a judge on 8 January.

Freelance journalist Arezki Aït-Larbi, who writes for the French newspapers Le Figaro and Ouest-France, recently learned, after his request for a new passport was refused, that he had been sentenced without his knowledge in December 1997 to six months in prison as a result of a libel suit brought by a justice ministry official over an article he wrote in April 1995 for the Algerian weekly L’Evénement.

The official used to head the department that supervises the implementation of court sentences. Aït-Larbi’s article had criticised his department’s slowness to respond to allegations of mistreatment of detainees in Lambèse prison. Aït-Larbi told Reporters Without Borders that the Algiers prosecutor’s office never responded to his lawyer’s request for a new trial.