A crackdown on independent journalists and bloggers is being stepped up despite the coronavirus epidemic. Four have been brought before courts, sentenced to imprisonment or subjected to judicial interrogation in the past few days alone.
In Mohammadia, 350 km west of Algiers, the newspaper Ennahar’s correspondent, Djamel Ali Toubal, was given a summary trial on 17 June because of his sympathetic coverage of the “Hirak” anti-government street protests on Facebook and was sentenced to two years in prison for “insulting state authority” and “Facebook posts liable to endanger national interest.” He collapsed when the sentence was passed but said he would appeal as he was being taken off to the town’s prison.
Merzoug Touati, a blogger and reporter for L'Avant-Garde Algérie, a news site that is blocked in Algeria, was arrested while covering a protest in support of prisoners of conscience on 12 June in Bejaia, 245 km east of Algiers. The next day, a court ordered him held pending trial for “inciting a gathering” and “publication and distribution of publications liable to endanger national unity and lives during the lockdown.” Touati, who has been convicted in the past in connection with his posts and his journalism, refused to be tried by video-conference, so his trial was scheduled for 1 July.
Mustapha Bendjama, the editor of the regional French-language newspaper Le Provincial, appeared in court in Annaba, 600 km east of Algiers, on 17 June to face a possible three-year jail term on charges of “inciting an unarmed gathering,” “opposing the holding of an election” and “using a gathering to oppose actions approved by state authorities.” The case was adjourned until 1 July.
He was acquitted on these charges at the end of an initial trial on 2 February but Annaba’s prosecutor general appealed against his acquittal. Arrested nearly a dozen times, placed in police custody twice, and with no fewer than four cases pending against him, Bendjama said: “This persecution is due to my involvement in the Hirak movement.”
Khaled Drareni, the editor of the Casbah Tribune news site and Algeria correspondent of both TV5 Monde and RSF, was questioned about the “substance” of the case against him by an investigating judge on 18 June in a “hearing” held inside Kolea prison in west Algiers, where he has been held since 29 March. Arrested while covering a peaceful Hirak protest in Algiers, Drareni is facing up to ten years in prison on a charge of “inciting an unarmed gathering” and “endangering national unity.”
“The number of judicial proceedings against Algerian journalists is extremely disturbing and constitutes a blatant erosion of press freedom in Algeria,” said Souhaieb Khayati, the head of RSF’s North Africa desk. “We call on the Algerian authorities to stop manipulating the justice system and to stop obstructing the work of journalists, who have just done their job by covering the Hirak protest movement.”
Algeria is ranked 146th out of 180 countries and territories in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index, five places lower than in 2019.