Algerian reporter gets two months in prison for story about date exports

An Algerian newspaper reporter held since 8 September for reporting that France rejected a consignment of Algerian dates over the presence of a banned pesticide was sentenced to two months in prison on 25 October, in a case that shows that the Algerian authorities are cracking down on the media regardless of the subject covered, says Reporters Without Borders (RSF), calling on them to let journalists do their job and to respect their rights.

“This case is a prime example of the major decline in respect for press freedom in Algeria. The fact that a story about dates can result in a prison sentence shows there is no longer any limit to the persecution of journalists in Algeria. We urge the authorities to respect the Algerian constitution, which says press offences are not punishable by imprisonment, and we call on them to let journalists work without harassing them.

Khaled Drareni
RSF’s North Africa representative

As well as sentencing reporter Belkacem Haouam to two months in prison, the court in the Algiers district of Hussein Dey gave him an additional ten-month prison sentence that was suspended and a fine of 100,000 dinars (700 euros), and gave Abdelhamid Othmani, the acting editor of his newspaper, Echorouk, a six-month suspended jail sentence. The prosecution had requested a year in prison – not suspended – for both journalists.

The court convicted them of “publishing and disseminating false news to the public likely to harm the general interest” but acquitted them on the charge of “disseminating false news to the public with a view to creating disruption in the market.”

Published in Echorouk on 7 September, the offending article by Haouam was about Algeria’s problems exporting its Deglet Nour dates to Europe, especially France, because of restrictions on the use of pesticides.

Haouam reported that trade and export promotion minister Kamel Rezig met with date exporters and with officials from the agriculture ministry, customs department and National Foreign Trade Agency (ALGEX) on 29 August to discuss France’s decision to return several tons of Algerian dates because of the presence of diflubenzuron, a pesticide banned in the European Union.

Reacting quickly to the story, the trade ministry denied that France had rejected any Algerian dates because of pesticide and accused Haouam of jeopardising Algerian date exports and therefore of violating the law banning information that threatens the general interest.

The day after the article was published, Haouam was questioned by the judicial police in response to a complaint by the trade ministry and was placed in pre-trial detention in Algiers’ El-Harrach prison on the orders of an investigating judge.

Haouam’s imprisonment stunned journalists because – as well as violating article 54 of the constitution, which says, “press offences cannot be punished by imprisonment” – it was seen as a disproportionate reaction to a story about something as ordinary as date exports, a subject that does not fall into the category normally deemed sensitive by the authorities.

In an additional reprisal immediately after Haouam was jailed, the state-owned printing press announced that it was suspending printing of Echorouk on the grounds of three-week-old unpaid debts.

As he has been held since 8 September and must now serve a two-month jail term, Haouam will not leave El-Harrach prison until 6 November.

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