Judicial proceedings, imprisonment, draconian laws, website blocking and cyber-harassment have all been used to step up pressure on the last independent journalists and media outlets in Algeria, where more than 550 coronavirus deaths and nearly 7,200 cases have been officially reported since the first case on 25 February.
Journalists who have been covering the “Hirak” wave of anti-government street protests that began more than a year ago have been particularly exposed to the government crackdown on dissent.
They include Khaled Drareni, the editor of the Casbah Tribune and Algeria correspondent of RSF and TV5 Monde, who was arrested on 7 March while covering one of the peaceful Hirak protests in Algiers, and has been held since 29 March on a charge carrying a possible ten-year jail sentence. An initial request for his provisional release was rejected on 6 May. Another Algiers court is due to issue a decision on 27 May.
Drareni is not the only journalist to have been jailed. Sofiane Merakchi, the correspondent of the Lebanese TV channel Al Mayadeen, who also works as a producer for other foreign TV channels such as France 24 et RT, has been detained since September and was sentenced on 5 April to eight months in prison on a charge of importing equipment without a permit and evading customs duties. He was the first journalist to be imprisoned since the start of the Hirak protests.
As well as judicial pressure, the authorities have also been using website blocking to censor media outlets.
Several sites have been blocked in recent weeks and are no longer accessible in Algeria. Maghreb Emergent and Radio M have been blocked since 10 April. Then Interlignes and DZVid were rendered inaccessible. Matin d'Algérie’s management has accused the authorities of “practices... as in the good old days,” practices associated with Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s two decades as president.
The website Tout sur l'Algérie (TSA) was repeatedly blocked in a similar manner in 2017 and again in 2019. Fearing reprisals, the satirical newspaper El Manchar has meanwhile opted to stop publishing. Its staff decided that the oppressive climate and the arrests constituted too much a threat.
Cyber-harassment has also been growing since Abdelmadjid Tebboune was sworn in as president in December. More and more journalists have found themselves the targets of exceptionally violent social media hate campaigns because of comments that caused annoyance. When arrest without a specific charge is not used, as it was with Drareni, every other kind of method is used to harass or silence government critics.
“Anyone who dares to judge – even if only in a colourful but unspecific way – or to criticize the actions of the government in place since mid-December is accused of playing into ‘foreign hands’ and of serving the interests of those plotting to destabilize Algeria,” said a journalist who requested anonymity for fear of government reprisals.
“The increase in attacks against journalists and media is extremely dangerous,” said Souhaieb Khayati, the head of RSF’s North Africa desk. “The Algerian authorities are going after the wrong enemy because the reporting provided by journalists is vital during the pandemic. By persecuting Khaled Drareni, they are showing their contempt for freedoms and for what remains of a free press in Algeria. This is why RSF calls for the immediate release of this journalist, whose only crime was to do his job.”
Draconian and vaguely worded law
The coronavirus pandemic has been windfall for the Algerian government because it has undermined the protest movement, and the authorities have taken advantage of this to clamp down drastically on the provision of news and information.
On 22 April, parliamentarians voted in favour of a bill criminalizing “fake news” that “undermines public order and security” or “state security and national unity.” This amendment to the criminal code provides for penalties of one to three years in prison, twice that in the event of a subsequent offence, and even five years in prison for a first time offence if it takes place “at a time of a public health lockdown or a natural, biological or technological catastrophe or any other form of catastrophe.”
RSF issued a press release at the time condemning the hypocrisy of legislation designed above all to censor online media and social media users. Under Algeria’s constitution, press offences cannot be punished by imprisonment and, at his first cabinet meeting in January, President Tebboune called for press freedom to be consolidated.
Algeria is ranked 146th out of 180 countries and territories in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.