Anis Bachir: Freedom Of Expression Under Attack In Algeria

I believe that the decline of Algeria from Partly Free to Not Free in the world press freedom index is strongly due to restrictions placed on the media in recent years. A lot of laws imposed content limitations on privately owned broadcasters, and government agencies withdrew advertising from media outlets that covered opposition parties. Foreign journalists were denied entry visas, had their visas restricted or faced obstacles to access on the ground.

The Algerian constitution guarantees freedom of expression. However, a state of emergency was in effect from 1992 until the last years, allowing the government to penalize any speech deemed threatening to the state or public order. While the state of emergency has since been lifted, substantial legal restrictions on press freedom remain in place. The threat of criminal and civil defamation charges hinders the press’ ability to cover the news. An amendment to the information code criminalizes writing, speech, and cartoons that insult or offend the president, the parliament, the judiciary, or the armed forces. Bloggers, like traditional journalists, are subject to defamation laws, and several have been fined for posting allegedly defamatory materials. Another cyber-crime law gives the authorities the right to block websites deemed “contrary to the public order or decency.”

Also, the country lacks legislation that enshrines the right to access official information. A media law that went into effect in January 2012 was hailed by its proponents as an important reform that would enhance media freedom by nominally abolishing prison sentences for press offenses and opening up key media sectors to private ownership. However, the law imposes limitations on coverage of a variety of subjects—including criminal investigations and state security—and steep fines of up to 500,000 dinars ($6,300) for press-related offenses. Journalists who fail to pay the fines can still be subject to jail time. Furthermore, the law contained strict new eligibility requirements for print periodical ownership, including a minimum of 10 years of media-related experience.

In keeping with the 2012 law, a new law regulating audiovisual broadcasting was passed recently to formally authorize the creation of privately owned channels, although several had already been operating in Algeria for a number of years, technically in defiance of the law but tolerated by the government. The new legislation sharply limits the extent to which private stations can provide independent news programming, in part by restricting the airtime devoted to news, and mandates the establishment of a new broadcast regulator, with five commissioners chosen by the president and four by the parliament.

There are more than 80 newspapers available in the capital Algiers, although only six are considered truly independent, as many are owned by private businesses that are closely affiliated with the government or the intelligence services. State-owned television and radio outlets typically broadcast biased information, display favoritism toward the president, and refrain from covering dissenting views. However, many households have satellite dishes that provide access to alternative sources of information. Only small percent of Algerians have good access to the internet due in large to poor infrastructure. Nevertheless, the government monitors internet activity and e-mail, and internet service providers are legally liable for the content they host. Social-media use has reportedly increased along with ongoing improvements to mobile telecommunications.

State agencies regularly engage in both direct and indirect censorship of private outlets. Severally, the government took measures to limit public access to election coverage and deter journalists from critically assessing the candidates and their platforms, for example by canceling state advertising contracts with targeted outlets. Self-censorship also remains widespread, motivated largely by a fear of defamation charges or other forms of government retaliation.

Also, foreign media outlets continue to face barriers to free reporting. Officials block distribution of foreign papers when they carry content deemed subversive. Foreign media coverage of issues related to national security and terrorism is considered especially sensitive. For example, The Algeria offices of Qatar’s Al-Jazeera satellite television network remained closed in 2014. During the election period, Algerian authorities either denied visas to foreign journalists or granted access with such a delay that reporters were unable to cover the entire campaign. Visas also imposed strict geographic limitations on journalists, requiring additional authorizations to report from certain regions, and expired only three days after the election. The Ministry of Information distributed documents to foreign journalists urging them to discuss only the election, not other political or social issues.

As Restrictive laws continue to be used to prosecute Algerian journalists and many often face various forms of harassment in the course of their work, it is important to continue to speak against these abnormalities.

*Anis Bachir is a Local Coordinator at African Students For Liberty, from Algeria.