New campaign launched to defend independent press against judicial threats

ALGERIA New campaign launched to defend independent press against judicial threats

Reporters Without Borders, 13 june 2005

At a press conference held today at its Paris headquarters with the Algerian Press Freedom Collective, Reporters Without Borders reiterated its call to the Algerian authorities to stop judicial harassment of the privately-owned press and to release Le Matin editor Mohamed Benchicou, who has been in prison for exactly one year.

At the same time, the Algerian Press Freedom Collective and the newspaper L’Humanité called for a protest rally outside the Algerian embassy in Paris at 6 p.m. tomorrow, the anniversary of Benchicou’s arrest.

Reporters Without Borders accused the judicial authorities of using the Tuesday sessions of the magistrate’s court in the Algiers district of Sidi M’hamed to convict journalists of press offences. « There has not been such a harsh crackdown on the press for years, » the press freedom organisation said. « The number of independent news outlets is shrinking fast and press freedom is now in great danger in Algeria. »

The organisation said it appealed to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s common sense, pointing out that on 3 May the president said, « the national institutions are not against press freedom. »

Reporters Without Borders roundly condemned the application of prison sentences in libel cases and reiterated its call for press offences to be decriminalized by means of a reform of the criminal code, as requested by the UN special rapporteur for the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

Article 144 (b) of the criminal codes makes insulting or defaming the president punishable by 2-12 months in prison, in order to silence his critics, and permits the imposition of often exorbitant fines with the sole aim of squeezing independent newspapers out of existence.

Benchicou, whose daily newspaper, Le Matin, has been forced to close, has always been outspoken in his criticism of the authorities. Although his health has deteriorated in prison, his request for release on medical grounds was rejected on 10 April. Five other Le Matin journalists have been given prison sentences, in a clear sign that the government is bent on eliminating one of the country’s most independent newspapers for good.

In addition to Benchicou’s release, Reporters Without Borders said it also called for the release of Er-Raï El Aam press group president Amhed Benaoum, who has been imprisoned since 28 June 2004, an end to all libel prosecutions and a discharge for all convicted journalists.

The latest of many Algerian journalists to get prison sentences recently is Djamaldine Benchenouf, who lives in exile in France. The Sétif appeal court sentenced him in absentia to three years in prison for two articles he wrote for the Liberté daily newspaper about embezzlement within the National Social Insurance Fund and the General Union of Algerian Workers.

The sentence was imposed although a lower court investigating judge shelved the case in July 2004 and Benchenouf never received any subsequent summons notifying them that it had been reopened. His family, which is still in Algeria, has received repeated summonses and have been subject to other forms of administrative harassment since the outset.

Liberté’s former editor, Farid Alilat, was sentenced in absentia on 24 May to a year in prison and a fine of 100,000 dinars (1,100 euros) for a series of cartoons and a column in 2003 that were deemed « insulting to the president. »

The managing editor of the evening newspaper Le Soir d’Algérie, Fouad Boughanem, and one of his columnists, Hakim Laâlam, were sentenced by an Algiers court on 17 May to two years in prison and a fine of 250,000 dinars (2,750 euros) for libel. The newspaper was also fined the same amount.

Four Le Matin journalists were given prison sentences in libel actions on 19 April. They were Abla Cherif and Hassane Zerrouky, who got two months, and Youcef Rezzoug and Yasmine Ferroukhi, who got three months. The same day, Benchicou received an additional five-month prison sentence.
Meanwhile, the Jean Picollec publishing house, which published a book by Benchicou called « Bouteflika : an Algerian impostor, » was the target of a recent attack in which its front door was broken down with a sledge hammer. Nothing was taken and the only thing damaged inside was a poster about the book.

Maghreb & Middle-East Desk

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