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Attacks on the Press in 1997 - Algeria

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 1998
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 1997 - Algeria, February 1998, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47c565242.html [accessed 24 April 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Violence against journalists has taken a back seat to the military-backed regime's monopolization of news coverage of Algeria's brutal, six-year-long civil conflict. Strict government censorship, long-term suspension of newspapers, and the fear of state prosecution for coverage of "security" matters contribute to making the political violence in Algeria one of the most underreported conflicts in recent history.

The bloody, three-year assassination campaign against journalists, which has claimed the lives of 59 members of the media since May 1993, appears to be in recess; no murders of journalists were reported this year. Although the reasons for the hiatus remain unclear, some journalists attribute it to disarray among militant Islamist groups, who are presumed responsible for most of the deaths between May 1993 and August 1996. Whatever the explanation, the lull in assassinations has failed to comfort journalists. Many still live in constant fear for their lives and continue to take precautions in their daily activities. "We still sign our articles with pseudonyms and do not publish our own photographs in the newspapers," said one independent reporter. "There are no guarantees that the assassinations will not resume in the future." Because of such fears, many journalists remain holed up in hotels or isolated compounds in Algiers, such as the one at Al-Manar Sidi Faraj, attempting to carry out their work under siege-like conditions.

But it is the state's iron grip over the flow of information on the civil conflict that has proven the year's dominant theme. Independent news reporting on acts of political violence or government counterinsurgency operations remains virtually impossible because of severe government restrictions. A March 1994 interministerial decree, circulated to the national media, forbids newspapers from publishing any news on "security" matters except for that provided by the official Algerian Press Service (APS). Since 1993, CPJ has documented 24 cases of newspapers suspended for reporting on security-related topics – a broad category which authorities interpret to encompass guerrilla attacks on security forces, government human rights abuses, and the reporting of Islamist viewpoints. CPJ has also documented at least 19 prosecutions of journalists under the information code or related statutes for reporting on proscribed topics. Most newspapers have adopted a strict regime of self-censorship on security-related issues thus allowing the state in December to abolish "reading committees" it had established in February 1996 to ensure that stories about civil strife conform to official accounts.

The state also employs less direct means of reining in the press: It controls the supply of newsprint, the distribution of newspapers, and owns the printing presses. The government also uses its control over the distribution of advertising to reward newspapers whose editorial line on the conflict most closely resembles the state's.

Authorities this year launched a new weapon against the independent press – the closure of newspapers that have outstanding debts – to silence publications which criticized or contradicted the government's position on the conflict and other domestic issues. Between January and April, state actions forced the closure of four leading independent newspapers – La Nation, Al-Hourria, Eshourouk al-Arabi, and Al-Ouma. On April 11, two of them – the French language daily El-Ouma and the Arabic weekly Eshourouk al-Arabi – ceased publication following the government closure of Sodipresse, the newspapers' printing press. Sodipresse, Algeria's first privately owned printing press, which began operation in March, had been launched by a group of Algerian investors in response to the state's printing monopoly and its use of economic pressure against independent newspapers.

Several other newspapers have remained closed since civil strife erupted in 1992, including the Arabic-language weeklies Al-Wajh al-Akhar, Essah-Afa, and Ennour, and the daily Al-Djazair al-Youm. Each of these newspapers was known for its critical stance on the military's intervention in the electoral process and on government human rights abuses throughout the conflict. Although Algerian law stipulates that news publications may not be suspended for more than six months, the state printing house refuses to resume printing these newspapers.

Foreign correspondents who report on forbidden subjects are also vulnerable to state reprisal. In September, authorities refused to renew the accreditation of an Agence France-Presse correspondent in Algiers, in apparent retaliation for his reporting figures which contradicted the official death toll in massacres that took place in the Algerian countryside. Citing security concerns, the government has prohibited foreign journalists from traveling around the country without escorts, which severely inhibits investigative reporting. Although authorities describe these escorts as optional, they ignore journalists' requests to go it alone. In one instance, security agents detained Newsweek reporter Mark Dennis overnight after he ditched his escort to interview Islamic Salvation Army military commander Ahmed Benaicha in the field. Dennis was subsequently expelled from the country.

There was no new information in 1997 about the case of Djamel Fahassi, a reporter with the government-run French-language radio station Alger Chaine III and a former contributor to the now-banned Al-Forqane – a weekly organ of the Islamic Salvation Front – who was arrested by security forces in 1995. Although witnesses to his abduction say that Fahassi had been apprehended by security forces, authorities continue to deny knowledge of his arrest. In what appears to be a new case of government-inspired "disappearance," gunmen identifying themselves as security agents abducted Aziz Bouabdallah, a journalist for the Arabic daily Al-Alam al-Siyassi, from his home in Algiers. Despite government denials of any knowledge of the incident, CPJ received reports in July that Bouabdallah was being held in the Chateneuf detention facility in Algiers, where he was reportedly tortured. On July 25, CPJ sent a letter to President Liamine Zeroual urging that authorities locate Bouabdallah and bring him to safety.

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