Kafkaesque arrest and muzzled media in Algeria

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the Algerian authorities to stop muzzling imprisoned journalist Ihsane El Kadi’s two media outlets, which were raided, stripped of their equipment and closed after his arrest on 24 December, putting 30 or so employees out of work. This could mean the end of the only really independent media left in Algeria, RSF says.

In Czech author Franz Kafka’s novel, The Trial, Josef K. wakes up one morning to find himself being arrested arbitrarily as if still in a nightmare. It was at midnight on 24 December that Ihsane El Kadi was arrested at home, taken into police custody and then jailed. The Algerian news agency APS reported a few days later that a person “identified as K.I.” had been detained on charges as unclear as those in the novel. Josef K. and K.I. seem to share a similar fate at the hands of an arbitrary bureaucracy.

“Comparing a novel written at the start of the 20th century in central Europe with a criminal case in Algeria now may seem strange, but Algerian justice often seems to borrow from fiction, and we can only express our distress and concern,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “The Algerian authorities should realise that they are acquiring a disastrous image by trampling on democratic principles in this way.”

On the morning of 25 December, the security services drove down Henry Dunant Street in downtown Algiers to the headquarters of Interface Médias, which owns Radio M and the Maghreb Émergent website, and proceeded to carry out such a long search that they closed off this narrow street in order to work more comfortably. The three vehicles they came in were the only ones on the street. But they did not come alone. They brought Ihsane El Kadi with them. The sight of their director in handcuffs stunned the journalists and other employees. At the end of the search, all computers and storage devices were taken away, along with all documents found on site. The offices of Radio M and Maghreb Émergent were then closed and sealed.

This raid deprived these two independent media outlets of their ability to operate. The Maghreb Émergent’s journalists can still post content on its website but Radio M is completely paralysed. Its cameras and video editing equipment have been seized and the studio has been closed. By this arbitrary measure, the authorities have not only stripped around 30 journalists and media workers of their jobs but also effectively eliminated Algeria’s last really independent media outlets.

“This sudden, radical assault on the two media outlets led by Ihsane El Kadi clearly shows a desire to silence the last free and totally independent journalistic voice remaining in Algeria,” said Khaled Drareni, RSF’s North Africa representative. “Ihsane El Kadi must be released unconditionally, and his media outlets must be able to resume their work of providing news and information.”

Maghreb Émergent owed its existence to a group of journalists who worked together in the 1990s at Algeria Interface, the first website dedicated to Algeria, producing reporting and analyses whose quality was universallly recognized. It was this group of journalists who created Interface Médias, which launched the Maghreb Émergent news site in March 2010.

Radio M was created in 2014, initially as a talk-show called “Café press politics” (CPP), which facilitated a debate about a proposed fourth term for President Bouteflika. Amid a great deal of public expectation, the show was launched in the apartment that housed Maghreb Émergent. Other shows have been created since then, reinforcing this web radio’s content.

Many journalists arrested

The judicial authorities soon began questioning Radio M’s very existence, and even more so after the emergence of an anti-government protest movement called Hirak in February 2019, which was opposed to a fifth term for Bouteflika and which led to his resignation.

Many journalists were harassed and arrested, including Khaled Drareni, who is now RSF’s North Africa representative. Drareni, who presented Radio M’s leading news show, the CPP, was arrested several times in 2019 and 2020 and was sentenced in August 2020 to three years in prison for “endangering national unity.” He was finally released after serving one year of this sentence.

Another Radio M journalist, Kenza Khattou, was summarily arrested while covering a protest in Algiers in May 2021 and, after three days in police custody, was given a three-month suspended prison sentence. Her conviction was eventually overturned in December of that year.

The judicial persecution has obviously not spared El Kadi himself, either. The communication ministry filed a complaint against Radio M’s director after he wrote an article in March 2022 analysing the implications of the emergence of a conservative-Islamic tendency within the Hirak movement. He was sentenced to six month in prison on 7 June but remained free pending the outcome of his appeal. The sentence was finally upheld on 25 December.

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