The referendum on the proposed constitutional reform, Tebboune’s flagship initiative, is being held on 1 November, the 66th anniversary of the start of Algeria’s 1954-62 independence war. At his inauguration in December 2019, Tebboune pledged to overhaul the constitution to respond to the aspirations of the “Hirak” streets protests that began in February 2019. He is now telling Algerians he wants to “build a new Algeria” by reinforcing fundamental freedoms, including press freedom and the freedom to inform.
However, although article 54 of the proposed new constitution guarantees the freedom of “print, broadcast and social media,” it stipulates that this freedom “cannot be used to violate the dignity, freedoms and rights of other persons” and that it is exercised “within the framework of the law and respect for the Nation’s religious, moral and cultural characteristics and values.”
Legally enshrined restrictions of this kind – involving “national characteristics” such as the republican nature of the state, Islam as state religion, the integrity and unity of the country’s territory, and national security – are worrying because their wording lacks precision and can be interpreted in various ways.
And they conflict with international law. The UN Human Rights Committee’s General Comment No. 34 says that, under article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Algeria ratified in 1989, no media outlet can be penalized for criticizing a political or social system.
Article 55 of the proposed new constitution establishes the right to access and obtain information, but it says this right cannot violate the “legitimate interests of companies.” Such a restriction on freedom of expression is not recognized in international law and poses a real danger to the right to provide information about economic issues – a domain that is not necessarily separate from the political domain in Algerian legislation.
“These constitutional guarantees represent a step forward for the right and freedom to inform in Algeria but they won’t be effective unless the country’s current legislation, especially its penal code, is brought into line with the new constitution and with Algeria’s obligations as regards press freedom and the freedom to inform,” said Souhaieb Khayati, the head of RSF’s North Africa bureau. “We therefore urge President Tebboune to ensure that the ‘new Algeria’ is accompanied by real progress as regards press freedom.”
The referendum comes amid a growing crackdown on press freedom that has been under way since the start of the coronavirus epidemic – a crackdown that raises doubts about the Algerian government’s real desire to guarantee its citizens’ freedom to be informed and its journalists’ freedom to inform them.
In April, legislators approved a proposed amendment to the penal code criminalizing “fake news” that “threatens public order and state security.” Violations will be punishable by one to three years in prison or twice that for a subsequent offence. A first time offence will be punishable by up to five years in prison if it takes place “at a time of a public health lockdown or a natural, biological or technological disaster or any other form of disaster.”
Several journalists are currently the targets of criminal prosecutions or have already been given prison sentences. They include Casbah Tribune news website editor Khaled Drareni, who is also the Algeria correspondent of RSF and the French TV channel TV5 Monde. Drareni was sentenced to two years in prison on appeal on 15 September for “inciting an unarmed gathering” and “endangering national unity.”
Algeria is ranked 146th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index, five places lower than in 2019 and 27 places lower than in 2015.