Siege Mentality: Press freedom and the Algerian conflict
|Publisher||Committee to Protect Journalists|
|Publication Date||February 1999|
|Cite as||Committee to Protect Journalists, Siege Mentality: Press freedom and the Algerian conflict, February 1999, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47c567c232.html [accessed 10 October 2015]|
|Comments||This report was included as a Special Report in CPJ's "Attacks on the Press in 1998".|
Since the Algerian army canceled legislative elections in January 1992, to prevent victory by the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut, or FIS), Algeria has been embroiled in a brutal civil conflict. An estimated 75,000 people have been killed in the violence, now in its seventh year. The country's emergent private press has faced tremendous hardship as a victim of both sides of the conflict between the state and armed Islamist groups. A three-year assassination campaign by suspected religious extremists beginning in May 1993 claimed the lives of 58* journalists and forced most of those choosing to remain in the country to operate under siege-like conditions. And the state has vigorously controlled press coverage of the violence through blanket censorship, the suspension of newspapers, and the arrest and criminal prosecution of journalists who attempt independent reporting. While Islamist extremists, who are believed responsible for most of the killings, no longer target journalists for death – there have been no murders of journalists since August 1996 – the legacy of that nightmare period is a press decimated in number and tethered to the state for protection and even shelter. Those journalists who seek to take a more independent path have incurred the government's wrath and endured a variety of judicial and extra-judicial retaliatory strikes.
In recent months, the state has eased some of the more obviously draconian restrictions on the press that were common in the early years of political strife – a result of international pressure and perhaps of the regime's increasing confidence in its battle against extremists. In December 1997, the government abolished the notorious "reading committees" it had established at printing houses the previous year to ensure that newspapers conform to the official line on the conflict. Reporters say they now have greater opportunity to gather information on political violence in the field and publish it than at any time in the last six years. While criminal defamation prosecutions of reporters continue, authorities have refrained from using the courts against newspapers and journalists who report on political violence as in years past. Algeria's press is able to criticize government policies and offer dissent on many issues.
In October, the Algerian government invited CPJ to visit the country for a first-hand view of conditions for the press – part of an apparent campaign to deflect international criticism on the issue of human rights. CPJ has monitored Algeria's isolated and besieged press throughout the conflict, and viewed this as an opportunity to show solidarity with Algerian journalists and raise our concerns about freedom of expression in the country with its leaders. I traveled to Algiers accompanied by Kamel Eddine Labidi, a consultant to CPJ who also works as a free-lance journalist based in Arlington, Virginia, to meet with reporters, editors, lawyers, and officials. Despite the mandatory presence of armed escorts when traveling about the city, we conducted dozens of interviews with journalists representing a variety of private and state-owned newspapers during a two-week period. On October 27, CPJ board member and CNN correspondent Peter Arnett joined us for a meeting with Minister of Communications and Culture Habib Chawki Hamraoui. The delegation presented the minister with the preliminary findings of its research.
Out of these interviews and meetings emerged a picture of the Algerian press today. Despite the recent favorable changes, the print media remain subject to a variety of constraints which hamper independent reporting. The state continues to use subtle tactics to discourage reporting on sensitive political issues, such as the country's security concerns and alleged government improprieties. It controls the printing presses and the distribution of public-sector advertising, using both to exert economic pressure on dissenting publications. Officials use criminal defamation and other statutes to silence or sway editors and reporters, while other repressive laws and decrees remain on the books as a sword over journalists' heads.
The press is also hindered by less conspicuous obstacles. The practice of self-censorship on issues central to the conflict such as human rights abuses, its counter-insurgency war, government corruption, and the viewpoints and activities of the FIS is widespread. "You can't talk about freedom of the press and freedom of expression in a country run by security services and the army," said one Algerian political observer, noting the level of fear confronting the press.
Restrictions on the foreign media, the sheer difficulty of obtaining sources of information, and an overall lack of media pluralism further contribute to keeping many details about Algeria's bloody war beyond the reach of the public. And perhaps equally significant, many Algerian journalists continue to operate under a siege mentality. Despite what many have described as an overall feeling of greater safety in Algiers, their dependence on the government – for information, even for shelter – persists.
In 1998, as international scrutiny of the violence intensified – specifically with regard to a wave of massacres of civilians in the Algerian countryside – the question of the press's ability to fulfill its role in documenting one of the region's most lethal conflicts has become more urgent than ever.
Based upon our investigations in Algeria, CPJ recommends that the Algerian government:
- Guarantee the right of journalists to "seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers," as stipulated in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights;
- Initiate efforts to locate and bring to safety "disappeared" journalists Djamel Eddine Fahassi and Aziz Bouabdallah, who were apprehended by men presumed to be security agents on May 7, 1995, and April 12, 1997, respectively. Launch an investigation to determine the whereabouts of missing journalists Muhammad Hassaine* and Kaddour Bouselham;
- Conduct a thorough and transparent independent investigation into the assassinations of journalists since 1993 and ensure that those responsible are swiftly brought to justice;
- Encourage and facilitate the creation of private printing services for newspapers, and in the interim, establish clear guidelines governing all facets of the business relationship between newspapers and state-owned printers;
- End the state monopoly of the distribution of advertising by state-owned companies to newspapers, and ensure that any future privatization of advertising distribution is free of government influence;
- End the legal harassment of journalists and newspapers through the use of criminal defamation or other statutes to prosecute newspapers for their publication of news and opinion;
- Abolish provisions of the draft information code, now before parliament, which directly threaten the right of journalists to free expression. These include articles 4, 12, 21, 50, 51, 75, 81, and 82;
- State publicly that the Algerian government recognizes its duty under internationally recognized norms of free expression to ensure media pluralism, including the dissemination of a diversity of views, even if these views are opposed to or critical of prevailing policies;
- Permit newspapers banned by decree or under emergency law to resume publication; and
- End restrictions on foreign journalists working in Algeria, including the use of mandatory escorts, and facilitate the process of obtaining visas for journalists wishing to work in Algeria.
Following bread riots and political unrest that swept the country in October 1988, the government initiated a process of wide-reaching political reform, opening the door for the emergence of private newspapers. In 1989, President Chadli Benjedid championed a new constitution – adopted by national referendum in February – legalizing political parties and ending 27 years of one-party rule by the National Liberation Front (FLN). In line with the political opening, the state ended its monopoly over the media by authorizing and assisting in the creation of private print media and ending government censorship.
In 1990, the first private newspapers appeared, and over the next two years, dozens of daily and weekly publications in both French and Arabic appeared, representing a wide array of political and social trends. Specialized publications dealing with cultural issues and science emerged, while party newspapers provided a platform for the country's nascent multi-party system. Between 1990-1992, the Algerian media enjoyed a freedom and vibrancy unparalleled in the Arab world, with newspapers providing caustic criticism of public officials and government policy while offering a diversity of opinion and analysis on a broad spectrum of political, economic, and social issues. Although the state remained in firm control of the broadcast media, radio and television expanded their coverage, providing opportunities for the political opposition to voice its criticisms, and spotlighting the social hardships faced by ordinary Algerians.
The political turmoil and the outbreak of violence across the country in 1992 signaled the decline of press freedom. As the social divide between secular and Islamist widened, the press, too, became increasingly polarized, openly taking sides on the army's move to deprive the FIS of its almost certain electoral victory. Newspapers and journalists soon came under attack from the state. Initially, the clampdown focused on FIS organs such as the weeklies Al-Mounqidh and Al-Forqane, which were permanently closed in March 1992. Other Islamist publications like the weekly Al-Balagh, which was sympathetic to the FIS and had criticized the coup, met similar fates. Along with the closure of publications, journalists were arrested and charged with a host of offenses ranging from "spreading false information" to "endangering state security" for their published calls to the army not to shoot at demonstrators and their condemnation of the military's intervention in the elections.
The clampdown on news coverage gradually extended to independent Arabic publications which had been critical of the state, as well as to the largely Francophone secular press which had predominantly supported the suppression of the Islamists. Newspapers were suspended and reporters endured similar repression for attempting to report on political unrest. After the assassination of President Muhammad Boudiaf in June 1992, state repression of the press intensified. A new state of emergency decree was brought into force on August 11, authorizing authorities to suspend or close any institution – including the media – whose "activities endanger public order and security."
In the ensuing years, the state clamped down on news coverage of the conflict. In June 1994, an inter-ministerial decree banned all reporting on political violence except for information provided by the official Algerian Press Service (APS). Violators of the decree were subject to prosecution under a variety of provisions of the information code and the penal code. The decree was accompanied by "recommendations" to newspapers for the presentation and layout of security-related information with the aim of downplaying violence and portraying the Islamist opposition in a negative light. In February 1996, authorities established "reading committees" at the state-run printing houses to ensure that newspapers' coverage of the conflict conformed to state accounts.
As the state tightened its grip on independent reporting, another, more sinister threat emerged. On May 26, 1993, Tahar Djaout, editor of the cultural weekly Ruptures, was shot outside his home near Algiers and died several days later. The attack marked the beginning of a three-year assassination campaign. So-called "black lists" with the names of journalists singled out for death were reportedly circulated in Algiers.
Some journalists and other observers believe that many if not most of the assassinations were the work of the extremist Armed Islamic Group (Groupe Islamique Arme, or GIA), in apparent response to what it viewed as the press's complicity with the state in the war against Islamists. Other journalists, however, suspect the state's involvement in some of the murders, although no concrete evidence has yet emerged to support this claim. "Some journalists believe that the political and financial Mafia killed a number of journalists and not the terrorists," said the editor of a leading daily newspaper. "[Le Matin columnist] Said Mekbel for example wrote daily on corruption and the Mafia. You can't underestimate the role of terrorists but many are convinced." Further arousing suspicions, authorities to date have failed to bring any of those responsible for the murders to justice and have refused any independent inquiry into the killings. As the murders mounted, dozens of journalists fled the country, while those remaining took refuge in state-run hotels under armed guard, living and working in constant fear.
While the violence against journalists has subsided considerably, hundreds still live under armed guard in state-run facilities like the Al-Manar – an outdated and dreary hotel in the Algiers suburb of Sidi Faraj. The tiny, sparsely furnished rooms are crowded, often accommodating several journalists or family members. The daily threat of assassination led some journalists to drug or alcohol addiction. One journalist working in the state broadcast media told CPJ, "Journalists would take pills and get drunk to cope. Some of my friends have become addicted to alcohol and sleeping pills."
While many journalists admit that the security situation in the capital has improved, few have the means to relocate to flats in safe neighborhoods. "Now there is a social aspect," said a journalist living with his wife and child at the Al-Manar. "those who have flats can go back. But we don't have an apartment."
Over the past six years – due in considerable measure to a concerted effort by the authorities to eradicate newspapers critical of the abrogation of the 1992 election and other human rights abuses – the private press has become increasingly accommodationist, supporting the state in the battle against Islamism. Most newspapers reject the idea of dialogue between the combatants, and exclude the viewpoints and concerns of the Arabo-Islamist trend in society. Independent Arabic-language papers such as Al-Wajh al-Akhar, Essah-Afa, Ennour, Al-Djazair al-Youm, and Hiwar – with an estimated combined circulation in the hundreds of thousands – were closed by decree between 1992 and 1995. "All of the journalists who were opposing the regime were eliminated," commented one columnist.
Since the emergence of private newspapers, the state has controlled printing and the supply of paper through its ownership of the country's four printing houses. Authorities have used this leverage to suspend outspoken newspapers and place economic pressure on publications that have reported on sensitive political topics, or have adopted editorial lines that are critical of the state. Since 1993, state printers have arbitrarily refused services to newspapers without explanation or by invoking the contentious issue of debt.
Most recently, in October 1998, the state printer forced the month-long closure of two leading dailies, the French-language El-Watan and Le Matin, citing outstanding debts. Five other newspapers ceased publication to protest what they described as a politically motivated attack by the printer, leaving the country's newsstands without the leading newspapers until the dispute was resolved in early November. (Le Matin was able to resume publishing through the temporary services of a private printer on November 14. Eventually on December 22, it was able to return to its original printer after reaching an arrangement to repay its debt.)
The printer's move followed the papers' sustained criticism of two government officials – Gen. Muhammad Betchine, a former advisor to President Liamine Zeroual, and former Minister of Justice Muhammad Adami. Both papers had reported that Betchine and Adami were involved in massive corruption and abuse of power. The two officials resigned in October in what journalists claimed as a victory for press freedom.
To some journalists, the closure of El-Watan and Le Matin demonstrated the state's adoption of new, subtler approaches to censoring newspapers, replacing harsher tactics used in the early years of the conflict. "The government can no longer afford to carry out heavy administrative censorship on the newspapers because of strong international pressure against that," says Omar Belhouchet, El-Watan's editor.
In fact, the suspensions are only the most recent examples of the practice of closure over the issue of debt, now aggressively targeting leading publications as well as opposition papers. Between 1993-1996, similar actions forced several papers off newsstands; most of them had advocated reconciliation to end the civil conflict or had reported on government human rights abuses. Publishers and lawyers say that while debts are a fact of life for newspapers, the printers are selective in demanding payment, and usually exact impossible terms.
The state printer also has adopted more arbitrary measures. In another recent case, the state printer, in July 1998, refused to provide services to the newly established weekly El-Borhane, a bilingual French and Arabic weekly described by one of its founders as representing the Islamist viewpoint. After waiting nearly two years for its license, El-Borhane received permission to publish in 1998. But the paper's assigned printer, El Moudjahid, refused to produce it. El-Borhane printed four issues in June and July after some bureaucratic maneuvering in which it was able to make arrangements with another state printer. But before the publication of the fifth issue, the printer, Societe d'Impression d'Alger (SIA), informed the paper's management that it could no longer service the paper and that it would have to return to El Moudjahid. Since then, El Moudjahid has refused to print the paper. El-Borhane's editors believe that it has been kept off the market because of its Islamist perspective and support for dialogue and reconciliation between the combatants in Algeria's civil war.
Efforts by publishers to set up private printing facilities have been met with official opposition. In 1992, the dailies El-Watan and Le Soir d'Algerie failed in their bid to establish a printing facility when authorities refused to register a plot of land on which the facility would be built. They also were denied a bank loan for the project in what they described as direct pressure from the government of then-Prime Minister Belaid Abdel Salam. Again, in 1996, the Algerian government rejected a funding proposal by UNESCO for a private printing press on the grounds that the move infringed on the country's sovereignty.
Meeting with CPJ representatives on October 27, Communications and Culture Minister Hamraoui reaffirmed his government's stated commitment, made in March to the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) in Algiers, to allow the establishment of private printing presses. Despite these verbal assurances, owners and publishers remain wary of embarking on such a venture, citing financial risk and the lack of specific guarantees from the state.
The state also uses its control over the distribution of public-sector advertising – a main source of revenue for the press in Algeria's largely state-owned economy – to exert economic pressure on outspoken newspapers. The monopoly – reinstated by the government in September 1992 – is exercised through L'Agence Nationale d'Edition et de Publicite (ANEP), a state body responsible for overseeing the purchase of newspaper advertising. ANEP has pursued a systematic policy of discrimination against several private papers. Newspapers that are both beneficiaries and victims of ANEP agree that its current practices are unfair and arbitrary. In 1998, the government had submitted a bill to parliament that would allow for the privatization of advertising distribution. At year's end, however, no action had been taken.
Like its control of advertising and its monopoly on printing, the state's hold on the supply and price of paper has proved economically detrimental to publications. Printing houses have forced both private and state-owned newspapers to pay high prices for newsprint and hold publications hostage to paper shortages. El-Watan has asked the printing house for permission to import its own paper, but the request was turned down.
Algerian authorities use a variety of legal weapons against journalists. The Information Code of April 1990, which journalists dubbed the "second penal code," prescribes harsh penalties for vaguely defined offenses. Under Article 86, for example, journalists face 5 to 10 years in prison for the deliberate publication of "false or misleading information capable of harming national order or state security." Over the years, authorities have invoked provisions of the penal code and other statutes to punish independent journalists in the courts.
Omar Belhouchet estimates that between 1993 and 1997 authorities initiated 30 prosecutions against him for publishing security-related information or articles implicating government officials in alleged corruption. Several of the pending cases force him to appear in court two or three times a week. Another editor, Le Matin's Muhammad Benchicou, estimates that more than two dozen prosecutions have been brought against him for the paper's published work.
Although new prosecutions against journalists for their coverage of security matters have nearly come to a halt, old cases continue to work their way through the courts. And despite Hamraoui's promises in March 1998 to the World Association of Newspapers that journalists would no longer be arrested or prosecuted for their work, there have been at least two criminal prosecutions since then.
On September 30, Muhammad Benchicou was convicted of criminal defamation in a suit initiated by L'Authentique – a paper with financial links to former presidential adviser Muhammad Betchine. The suit stemmed from a column he wrote in August titled "Call Back Your Dogs, Mr. Betchine," in which Benchicou had referred to journalists at L'Authentique as "harem girls." The remark culminated several weeks of harsh exchanges between the two papers over the case of Ali Ben Saad, an Algerian student leader who was sentenced to death in absentia for alleged terrorism. The student's only real offense appeared to have been articles critical of Betchine which he had previously published in Algerian newspapers. On October 3, Benchicou was given a four-month suspended prison sentence and assessed 18,000,000 dinars (US$300,000) in damages in a trial that moved through the courts with remarkable speed. The fine was reportedly the highest ever levied against an Algerian journalist. Although Benchicou has appealed the decision, forced payment of the fine could potentially put the paper Le Matin out of business.
In September, authorities launched a defamation investigation of the daily Le Jeune Independent for allegedly "humiliating organized institutions." In an August interview with Fatma Merzouk, head of a women's organization affiliated with the Socialist Forces Front (FFS), Merzouk had criticized the Algerian army for failing to come to the aid of civilians during a recent massacre near the town of Relizane, and also charged it with "economic crimes," or corruption. Shafiq Abdi, the paper's editor, and Said Tissegouine, its reporter in the city of Tizi Ouzou who conducted the interview, face imprisonment if tried and convicted of the charge. Abdi complained that he was only informed of the case after he appeared in court on September 22 in connection with another case against his paper.
At this writing, Algeria's parliament has a new draft information code and is expected to review it in the coming months. The draft bill contains several reforms, such as the abolition of imprisonment as a penalty for journalists who commit publications offenses (criminal defamation, however, still exists under the penal code), and provisions for the privatization of the broadcast media. But several provisions empower authorities to stifle independent journalism. For example, journalists convicted of defamation or libel face fines up to 500,000 dinars (US$8,200) for each offense, while those who publish information that breaches "national security," "national unity," or "the constitutional rights and freedoms of the citizen" are subject to the same fines. "We oppose the substitution of penalizing press violations with monetary fines," says Khaled Bourayou, a lawyer who represents several journalists. "This is very dangerous and can have damaging effects on newspapers. For example, Omar Belhouchet, who is charged in a number of cases, would be forced to pay thousands of dollars."
Covering the Conflict
Despite some notable examples of greater boldness in recent reporting on certain human rights and corruption stories, critics point to the conspicuous absence of reporting about issues of central importance to the civil conflict, specifically, the activities of the Islamist opposition; attempts at dialogue between the government and Islamists; corruption in the military; criticism of the 1992 coup; and state human rights violations.
Fear, self-censorship, ideological prejudices, and the lack of sources contribute to the absence of coverage on sensitive topics related to the political strife. "The reading committees took responsibility for not reporting news; now the journalists are responsible," a journalist working for an Arabic language daily told CPJ in October. "Now censorship is greater. Journalists are afraid of everything."
Stories questioning the status of imprisoned FIS leaders, such as Ali Bel Hadj, who has been in secret detention for three years, are taboo. Efforts at dialogue between the state and the FIS, meanwhile, have also been the subject of sporadic self-censorship in recent years – a result, say some, of shifting support in military circles for the idea. According to some journalists, newsroom censorship on the issue at certain papers increased markedly after 1996.
Journalists complain of the dearth of information about the Islamist opposition, which stems in part from the fact that most Islamist leaders are imprisoned or under house arrest. "It's nearly impossible to get good information with regard to the FIS," observed a journalist with the daily Quotidien d'Oran. In fact, while some information is available, "journalists don't want information from that side," he adds. The limited contacts of journalists among the Islamists also play a role in the lack of coverage.
Self-censorship, whether out of fear or political motivation, is pervasive and makes for an often one-sided depiction of events. A former journalist at the daily La Tribune told CPJ how the paper increasingly resorted to internal censorship after it resumed publication in late 1996 following a six-month suspension for publication of a political cartoon depicting the Algerian flag. In early 1997, the paper's director censored an article by the journalist on the trial of men accused of assassinating a government official. "In my article I said that not all of those being tried were terrorists – only 2 or 3 were actually responsible," she said, noting that many of the defendants were teenagers arrested in a police dragnet. "But the director of the paper refused to publish this viewpoint." Another journalist who left the paper in August 1998 noted that "journalists are often reminded not to write pieces which could provoke the authorities' anger and the suspension of the newspaper."
Editors avoid or censor coverage of human rights abuses such as torture, abductions, problems with the justice system, and abuses by state-supported self-defense militias. While newspapers often report on the findings of international human rights organizations, independent investigative reporting on these subjects rarely makes it into print. "I think the biggest difficulty is not getting information but it's publishing it," said a journalist formerly with La Tribune and Le Matin.
Some editors blame their papers' lack of coverage of human rights abuses on the dearth of sources. According to the editor of a leading daily paper, authorities continue to refuse journalists access to prisons, and information on one of the country's biggest tragedies – the "disappeared" – is scant. Lawyers for the "disappeared" disagree; according to one, since 1991 newspapers have refused to publish information he provided them on human rights cases, particularly those of the "disappeared." He noted that coverage of the issue during the visit in July by a high-profile United Nations panel, which was sent to gather information on political violence, characterized him as a lawyer for "terrorists."
Many editors in the mainstream press echo the regime's dismissive stance on state human rights abuses. "Most [international and human rights organizations] support terrorists," said the editor in chief of a leading daily newspaper. "Why do these organizations talk more about human rights than the papers? It's because their information comes from terrorists."
In April, May, and June, Algerian newspapers wrote about the mayor of the Western town of Relizane and another local official from the nearby town of Jdiouia who were implicated along with militiamen in summary executions of civilians and other abuses against citizens. The coverage marked the first time that the media reported on the involvement of the controversial state-supported militias in atrocities.
But many journalists and observers are skeptical that the press's treatment of the incident represents a barometer for press freedom. "I have a file on the victims of Relizane here in the office – about 20 [individual] files on the victims of violence, yet the press has not [previously] reported on it," says a lawyer who has documented the cases of many of the Relizane victims. Similarly, in the summer and fall of 1998, there was considerable coverage of the plight of families of the "disappeared" after they organized public demonstrations that attracted thousands of Algerians. Several journalists believe that editors got an official green light on the stories because the Algerian government felt immense pressure from the United Nations and international NGOs on its human rights record. "This is a development of the last six months," said a reporter with a French-language daily. "First the families of the disappeared held demonstrations ... and the issue became prominent and impossible to ignore."
Information and the Ability to Report
The state's clampdown on reporting developed gradually after 1992 and was a prelude to more overt censorship measures. According to journalists, censorship increased in 1995 and 1996 in the run-up to the presidential elections, when the state's aim was to reinforce its claim that terrorism in Algeria had abated.
But in late 1996 and 1997, when large-scale massacres of civilians were being committed in the Algerian countryside, it became increasingly difficult for the state to censor the news coverage. The press began covering the violence with greater regularity, while avoiding the sensitive issue of army or security forces' casualties. "The publishers didn't comply with the instructions given by the Minister of Interior," says Belhouchet, referring to the June 1994 inter-ministerial decree that banned all independent reporting on political violence. "If we implement these instructions we cease to be newspapers. This cannot be done. As a result some newspapers were suspended."
Today, estimates Belhouchet, his newspaper relies on the official Algerian Press Service (APS) for about 5 percent of its published news on the security situation. According to another editor, reporting on security matters in 1998 has become routine. "Journalists now go to sites of bombings, for example, and bring back the information and publish. Before they would be closed for publishing it," observed a correspondent for El-Watan.
But fear continues to deter investigative reporting in the field. "We still sign our articles with pseudonyms and do not publish our own photographs in the newspapers," one reporter told CPJ in late 1997. "There are no guarantees that the assassinations will not resume in the future."
Although authorities have abolished formal censorship and the suspension of papers has slowed, the experience of state reprisal has had a lasting effect on journalists. Several reporters described examples of security-related information they had obtained but were fearful of submitting to their editors. One reporter who covers security affairs for a daily newspaper told of information he had obtained in October 1998 about the security forces' apparent extra-judicial execution of suspected Islamists in Tipaza, 45 miles west of Algiers. The official news agency APS had reported that security forces killed a group of armed Islamists after they had feigned surrender and opened fire on the security forces. Eyewitnesses, however, told the journalist a different story – that security forces opened fire on the building, killing the men inside without resistance. "I censored myself," he said, explaining his decision not to submit the story to his editor. "Anyone who attempts to publish this sort of information could be in danger. You could be kidnapped or Ôdisappeared.' There are many examples like this where a journalist gets information but knows that he can't publish it."
Journalists tend to rely heavily on security forces as sources for information in the field, although authorities are often reluctant to divulge information. "Journalists covering security issues are always the last to arrive on the scene. They often share the same official pieces of information," said one reporter for a daily. "Relations with the security forces are based on a give-and-take formula. You need to socialize with security guys and buy them drinks if you want to get bits of information from them." Other journalists simply feel more comfortable dealing directly with authorities. A leading security reporter for a French-language daily admitted, "While doing my job, it is easier for me to get on with and communicate with the security forces than ordinary citizens."
But journalists complain that authorities keep them in the dark. Security forces or the army regularly provide false information on the number of victims at massacres and other scenes of violence. Journalists are often forced to seek alternative sources to confirm death tolls. "I am a former student at a medical school and I know people working at hospitals," said a security reporter. "For instance, a friend of mine working at an emergency service told me that 26 people died at Bab al-Oued following a bomb explosion. The official news agency reported that only 17 people died and that was not true."
Some information, such as the result of counter-insurgency operations and the identities of rebel casualties, is impossible to obtain without the help of authorities. Given the danger and inaccessibility of most operations which take place outside the capital, journalists are forced to rely almost exclusively on the army for details of fatalities. And it is virtually impossible to independently confirm the identities of the thousands who have been killed by security forces.
From August 1997 throughout 1998, a series of large-scale massacres were committed in several villages and hamlets outside of Algiers. Hundreds of men, women, and children were decapitated or had their throats slit. Others were hacked to death with axes. Authorities blamed armed Islamist groups. While such groups almost certainly committed much of the carnage, observers speculate that the state may have been involved in some of the atrocities. Official silence on the details of the violence and the state's refusal to allow an international investigation into the matter has further raised suspicions.
Despite formidable obstacles, Algerian journalists have actively covered massacres, traveling to the countryside at great risk to interview survivors and make first-hand assessments. While suggesting official involvement in the atrocities is taboo, newspapers have criticized the authorities for their failure to protect civilians and intervene in some attacks.
Reporters have described harassment by security forces in their attempts to view massacre sites. In other cases, reporters have recounted how security forces monitored their activities and spoke of incidents in which authorities produced impostors as witnesses for them to interview.
Some Algerian journalists who cover security issues said that following mounting international pressure on the Algerian government, authorities eased restrictions on journalists' access to massacre sites. But harassment by police and security forces persists. "When you go to the scene of a massacre, access is very difficult, and when the authorities realize you are a journalist they make you feel unwelcome," said one reporter. Another reporter said that after massacres, security forces generally "don't want you to have first-hand statements from witnesses."
Ultimately, however, the answers to questions concerning possible state complicity or involvement of government-backed militias in massacres remain in the hands of the state. "Official information on the atrocities remains scarce," writes Lahouari Addi. "The perpetrators are never taken alive before the courts. Since there is no freedom of the press, the media confirm the version put forward by the authorities. The army has no intention of letting an international inquest try to uncover the truth."
Despite the doggedness of some reporters, detailed information from massacre cites remains scarce. Reporting often focuses on the trauma experienced by survivors and lacks depth and probing detail as to who may be responsible. Fear among survivors is often cited as a reason for sketchy reporting. "You have a situation where 90 percent of it is fear. They have no faith in the media. They are scared. The people are hostages to this violence and as a journalist you think you are a target," said one Algerian political observer who has closely monitored the violence.
Some journalists assert that the only way to conclusively determine who is behind the massacres is through serious investigative journalism – which, under present conditions, is virtually impossible. Said one editor: "If you want to find out what's happening in Bentalha, you must send a journalist for a month and that's not technically possible. It's an area that's controlled by the militias and the army. You cannot access information. We have testimony that people who were brought [before journalists] weren't living there before.... A journalist would have to go in anonymously. It's nearly impossible."
According to another editor, "It is technically impossible to do our jobs. So we try to compare information maybe two to three weeks after the incident, but we really can't do investigations in the field." The same journalist cites a report that appeared in the French press in early 1998 alleging that authorities had executed Islamist prisoners in a village. "If I try to investigate this, it will take four to six months and I will need to get special permission from the authorities and find [witnesses]. You can't investigate this matter."
Limitations on the foreign media deepen the murkiness of coverage from Algeria. To date, only one Western news agency – Agence France-Presse (AFP) – maintains an Algeria bureau. As a result, foreign media rely heavily on local accounts. According to a BBC correspondent, "this has made it increasingly difficult to know what is going on inside Algeria. News organizations are forced to take unconfirmed reports from Algerian newspapers at face value, even if they do it with a touch of skepticism." Even AFP's staff in Algeria attributes much of its news to local papers.
Foreign journalists who visit Algeria encounter government prohibitions on travel around the country without escorts, which severely inhibits investigative reporting. Although authorities have at times described these escorts as optional, they ignore journalists' requests to go it alone. In 1997, security agents detained Newsweek reporter Mark Dennis overnight after he ditched his escort to interview Islamic Salvation Army commander Ahmed Benaicha in the field. Dennis was subsequently expelled from the country for evading his escort.
When foreign reporters travel to massacre sites, they do so under military convoy and in the presence of security forces. One American journalist described the procedure as "preposterous in terms of reporting." In further restricting access for the foreign media, Algerian authorities have denied visas to reporters in apparent response to what they have deemed their unfavorable coverage of events. Several European correspondents, such as Liberation's José Garçon, have failed to secure visas despite repeated requests over the years. Since 1993, authorities have ignored numerous visa requests by Garçon, who has covered Algeria for more than 10 years for her paper. The journalist says that she simply stopped requesting permission for the last two years; however, in 1997, she was formally denied a visa without explanation when requesting to travel to Algiers with a French politician. Requests for visas from other journalists, who have no reason to suspect official anger, have gone unanswered. During his meeting with CPJ representatives, Communications and Culture Minister Hamraoui stated that "only four or five [foreign] journalists" who he declined to name were banned from traveling to Algeria because "they don't come to Algeria for professional reasons."
The press holds a crucial position for an understanding of the Algerian conflict, in which information has proven to be a precious commodity. Beyond overt government constraints, the press is hostage to fear, which leads to such pernicious restrictions as self-censorship. The prevailing state of fear among journalists will dissipate only when respect for human rights and the rule of law take hold in Algerian society. The development of democratic institutions is the critical component to greater freedom for the press, since it is the state itself that holds the key to unraveling the many mysteries of Algeria's agony.
CPJ previously reported that our research had confirmed 59 journalists killed for their work in Algeria since May 1993. The change to 58 is the result of new information received during our fact-finding mission about the disappearance of Mohamed Hassaine, a reporter with the daily Alger Républicain. Hassaine was kidnapped by unknown assailants on March 1, 1994. Our original determination that Hassaine had been murdered was based on his newspaper colleagues' reports of the discovery of Hassaine's decapitated body. During interviews in Algiers in October, however, we learned that Hassaine's body was in fact never found, and that since his disappearance there has beenno circumstantial or material evidence confirming his death. We therefore have reclassified Mohamed Hassaine as missing.
Also, it should be noted that CPJ's figure of 58 killed does not include the several other non-journalists working in the media sector who have been killed since 1993.
Joel Campagna is CPJ program coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa.
"Disappeared" Journalists: The Cases of Djamel Eddine Fahassi and Aziz Bouabdallah
by Joel Campagna
"It was nearly 11:30 p.m. on April 12, 1997, when three plain-clothes policemen erupted into my house," said Muhammad Bouabdallah, his aged face becoming more strained with each word. "They were nicely dressed, and armed. One of them put his gun to the temple of my head before dragging Aziz out with them. Others pushed my wife into the sitting room to keep her out of their way. Then they disappeared."
Since that incident, which took place at their home in the Chevalier section of Algiers, both Muhammad and his wife Shafia have not seen their son Aziz, at the time a 22-year-old reporter with the Arabic-language daily Al-Alam al-Siyassi. Aziz Bouabdallah is one of four Algerian journalists considered missing by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) as of January 1999. Mohamed Hassaine, a correspondent for the daily Alger Republicain, was taken from his home in Larbatache near Blida on March 1, 1994. To date, there has been no information on his whereabouts. And Kaddour Bouselham, a reporter with the state-owned newspaper Horizons, was kidnapped in Hacine near Mascara in western Algeria on October 29, 1994. According to colleagues at the newspaper, another man abducted with Bouselham and later released said that both men were taken by a group of Islamist militants. An unconfirmed report published in El Watan on July 1, 1998, reported that a "repentant" militant told authorities that Bouselham had been murdered by the GIA emir in Mascara, Slimani Lahbib.
But it is the case of Aziz Bouabdallah and that of Djamel Eddine Fahassi, a reporter with the government-run French-language radio station Alger Chaine III – which most strongly suggest that the "disappearances" were the work of state security forces. Algerian authorities deny knowledge of their arrest.
"They didn't search our flat and they did not take anything," recalled Muhammad Bouabdallah of his son's abduction. "One of them was nearly 1.78 m high and was wearing a mustache like Clark Gable, an English trench coat, and shining shoes. Another was about 1.90 high, with his hair ruffled and was wearing a military rain coat and carrying a sophisticated weapon." According to the family, after the intruders confirmed that the young man's name was Aziz, they grabbed him, put his hands behind his back and pushed him out the door. "They were so quick that I could not see clearly the car they drove," he said.
An article published in the daily El-Watan a few days after his abduction reported that Aziz was in police custody, according to police sources, and that his release was imminent. The Bouabdallahs stress that the police have not refuted the El-Watan story. They, like hundreds of other Algerians in search of missing loved ones, have looked tirelessly for clues, contacting the police, the National Guard, and the gendarmerie, only to be told by all authorities that they have no information. The family has also written to President Zeroual and to the ministers of interior and justice – to no avail. Kemal Rezzag-Bara, president of the semi-official National Human Rights Monitoring Body (Observatoire des droits de l'homme, or ONDH) which reports to the president, has told the family that Bouabdallah was probably kidnapped by "terrorists."
Both family and colleagues express bewilderment about the motive for Bouabdallah's disappearance. They say that he was not politically active. "Aziz is a poet and a philosopher. He is a very quiet young man and very reserved," says Shafia Bouabdallah, holding back tears. "He has been studying law for three years at the Faculty of Law in Ben Aknoun. He wanted to become a judge."
Like the Bouabdallahs, the family of Djamel Eddine Fahassi has endured fear and uncertainty. Fahassi was a reporter for the government-run French-language radio station Alger Chaine III and a contributor to several Algerian newspapers, including the weekly La Nation, and Al-Forqane, a weekly organ of the Islamic Salvation Front that was banned in March 1992. Authorities deny any knowledge of his arrest.
Fahassi was last seen on May 6, 1995, near his home in the al-Harrache district of Algiers. His wife Safia has had to rely on second-hand accounts from eyewitnesses who are fearful to talk publicly. On the day of his disappearance, Fahassi had left a neighborhood restaurant where he had been with friends at about 2:30 p.m. Eyewitnesses told his wife that four men with walkie-talkies accosted him and pushed him into a waiting car. "I was told that he was stopped by a tall person wearing very handsome clothes – a jacket and classical pants," Safia described. "Then he called him by his name. He said to him 'You are Fahassi' and showed him something, possibly a [identification] card. I was told that he resisted."
Fahassi, who was 41 years old at the time of his "disappearance," had previously been a target of authorities. He had been arrested twice. The first time, in late 1991, followed the publication of an article he wrote for Al-Forqane likening a security forces' raid on an Algiers neighborhood to a pogrom. He was convicted on January 1, 1992, by the Blida military court of disseminating false information, attacking a state institution, and disseminating information that could harm national unity. He received a one-year suspended sentence and was released, having served five months in custody. A few months later, on February 17, 1992, he was arrested for allegedly attacking state institutions and spreading false information and transferred to the Ain Salah Detention Center in southern Algeria, where hundreds of Islamist suspects had been interned in the months following the cancellation of elections in January 1992. Fahassi was released on March 29 – the result, says Safia Fahassi, of a vocal campaign in the press waged by his colleagues.
Safia Fahassi has endured authorities' silence in her efforts to find her husband. She has had only a few unconfirmed leads to follow, such as an anonymous letter sent to the weekly La Nation in August 1995 by a supposed detainee at Algiers' Chateauneuf detention center who wrote that Djamel was being held at the notorious facility. Beyond that, however, there have been only rumors. Some press accounts have alleged that Fahassi is in fact alive and well. A much-assailed October 1995 story published in the state paper Horizons claimed that Fahassi had staged his disappearance and was living in comfort in a Mediterranean country. Many journalists, infuriated by the article, dismissed it as nothing more than state propaganda. And most recently, a journalist working with Fahassi's former employer Alger Chaine III told CPJ of a "colleague at the radio station" who had "recently received a call from him in Italy." However, after requests from CPJ, the journalist failed to produce the alleged colleague.
Many journalists, while noting advocacy efforts on behalf of Aziz Bouabdallah and Djamel Fahassi, say the press hasn't done enough to pressure authorities to publicize their findings on the two disappearances.
"Whoever kidnapped Fahassi, we condemn it," the director of one state-owned newspaper said, "whether it was the security forces or the armed groups. Kidnapping journalists is unacceptable. It's fascist behavior." The same journalist was also critical of the private press's lack of a sustained campaign on behalf of their missing colleagues, particularly Aziz Bouabdallah. "Even his paper stopped talking about him," he said. "I believe if there were a campaign on this issue by journalists you will get results. We wonder why the private press is so silent about this."
Algeria: Independent or Partisan Press?
The young man raced into Omar Belhouchet's office and, without uttering a word, handed the newspaper director a wrinkled piece of paper. As Belhouchet quietly examined it, his eyes opened wider until he calmly announced with a hint of satisfaction: "The Minister of Justice has resigned."
Justice Minister Muhammad Adami, for weeks the subject of allegations that he had grossly abused the power of his office, had stepped down. Belhouchet's influential daily, El-Watan, had published the charge that reportedly precipitated his resignation: his alleged responsibility for the suffocation death of 32 prisoners in June 1997. Just days after Adami's resignation, another high-ranking official – Muhammad Betchine, an influential adviser to President Liamine Zeroual – also resigned under duress. Like Adami, Betchine's name had been splattered across the front pages of newspapers for months, in stories describing his alleged shady business deals and abuses of power. A story published just before his resignation had fingered him in the torture of detainees after Algeria's 1998 bread riots.
While many journalists were quick to hail the resignations as evidence of a newly emboldened press ready to fulfill its duty as government watchdog, critics viewed the events with considerable cynicism. For them, the press' coverage of the Adami and Betchine scandals, spearheaded by several French-language papers, was the product of internal power struggles in the military, designed to weaken President Zeroual and his inner circle. Powerful people within the regime leaked information and offered assurances against reprisal to those newspapers that picked it up.
"The Betchine coverage is an example of the intervention of politics over professionalism," explained one former editor, echoing the sentiments of other journalists. "Betchine has been known for a long time as a person who is part of the [political and economic] Mafia. It was never prohibited before to criticize him, but we were afraid that there would be a swift response." The same editor had heard similar allegations against Betchine while on the staff of another newspaper, but had never been able to get the details. "If I had had information, though, I never would have published it without guarantees [that there would be no reprisals]," the journalist said.
For many Algerian journalists, such words have a deep resonance in a country where lawlessness, engendered not only by rebels but also the state, has become a main feature of the country's brutal, eight-year civil war. Fear of reprisal is often cited by reporters and editors as a principal deterrent to covering sensitive issues such as corruption, especially that involving high-level officials. "I believe my job is to try to shed light on all murky dealings. But fear is hovering over a journalist's head," remarked a reporter with the French-language daily Le Juene Independent. "He might get killed and thrown into a ditch. His death might be blamed on terrorists. So as long as I don't feel protected and have assurances, I cannot investigate corruption." Then how can the press's scrutiny of Muhammad Adami and Muhammad Betchine be explained? The answers are many and the truth unclear.
Editors in chief and publishers of newspapers that had reported extensively on both cases vehemently deny the accusations of political meddling or partisanship, and contend that they were just doing their jobs and reporting the news. Belhouchet, whose paper was at the forefront of the exposés of Betchine and Adami, rejects the arguments of critics, saying that the recent reporting on corruption comes in response to recent government promises of greater openness, such as those made in March 1998 to a visiting delegation from the World Association of Newspapers. "Publishers and journalists have tried to take the government at its word and to increase their freedom," he said.
But other journalists remain unconvinced. For them, the Adami-Betchine affair underscores the problem of what they call the "relative freedom" of Algeria's press, where the boundaries of acceptable journalism are ever-changing, often in sync with political jockeying within the regime. "We are afraid of some issues like all papers," said one reporter working with a French-language daily. "If, for example, I had information that (Chief of Staff) Gen. Lamari or (police security chief Muhammad Medienne) Tewfiq were involved in improper business dealings, it would be impossible for me to write about it. But now with relation to Betchine, I can write and publish an article because the balance of power has changed. Do you see the boundaries of free expression in Algeria?"
Still other Algerian journalists regard these either/or explanations as simplistic. "It's true that in some cases the directors of newspapers have relations with the army or political personalities," said one former editor. "But there are many journalists who try to be independent and some papers have a degree of independence." An Algerian reporter working with a Western news agency offered the following analysis about the independence of Algeria's press:
"In France, they say that there is a general behind every paper. Of course, we can criticize ourselves when papers remained silent when human rights violations are committed and when extra-judicial executions are committed. El-Watan is accused of being backed by generals, but it is a paper that has interviewed people like(Workers Party leader Louissa) Hanoune and (vocal human rights critic Ali Yehya) Abdennour and interviewed people who signed the St. Egidio Agreement (the agreement reached by opposition parties calling for a peaceful resolution to the conflict). We can say that there is not enough investigative reporting. Of course, the Algerian newspapers refrain from reporting on certain subjects, but it's also a problem of not having enough information and sources of information."
While it is difficult to measure the level of influence that military and political officials wield over newspapers, the debate on the topic within Algeria reveals the importance many journalists ascribe to the issue. "The independent press has tried to preserve its independence," said a reporter working with a French-language publication. "All of the papers have a trend or ideology, but this isn't only in Algeria."
Assassinations of Journalists
Since suspected Islamist militants began targeting journalists for death in 1993, Algeria has been the most dangerous country in the world to practice journalism this decade. Between May 1993 and August 1996, 58 editors and reporters were murdered; many were gunned down, stabbed to death, or had their throats slit by assailants while on the way to and from work. Others were kidnapped, their bodies later found decapitated or disfigured.
Journalists talk openly of the period when fear gripped their profession after suspected armed militants launched their lethal campaign against the press. "I thought I was an anonymous journalist. I didn't know that the list was so long," said Malika, a journalist working in the state broadcast media, describing how she was informed that police had discovered her name on a so-called "black list"-a list carrying the names of individuals reportedly marked for death by extremists. She, like many other Algerian journalists, eventually took refuge in Paris in order to escape the violence and threats on her life.
Armed Islamist militants are believed responsible for most of the killings of journalists during the three year period. "Those who fight by the pen shall die by sword," the militant Armed Islamic Group (GIA) reportedly warned in a 1995 communique. The threat, coupled with the deaths of tens of journalists by assassination, has had a frightening resonance among Algerian journalists. Despite the certain involvement of armed Islamists in the killings, many Algerian journalists remain convinced that Algerian authorities have been behind some of the assassinations. Answers to this question remain elusive as the Algerian government has failed to prosecute any individual responsible for the deaths of journalists and has continually resisted independent international investigations into the killings. Prominent journalists, like El Watan's Omar Belhouchet have found themselves the targets of government-led legal suits for their outspokeness on the topic. (Belhouchet was convicted in November 1997 of "harming state institutions" and sentenced to one year in prison for statements he made in 1995 to the French television stations TF1 and Canal Plus in which he said: "There are journalists that embarrass the authorities. I would not be surprised if tomorrow I found out that some of my colleagues were murdered by men in power." )
Today, while the assassination campaign appears to be in recess-CPJ has not recorded a case of a journalist murdered since August 1996-the horrors of the period 1993-1996 have had a lasting impact on the lives of many journalists. "After the journalists were being assassinated it was extremely tense," said Malika. "You could see it in the eyes of your friend. Journalists would take pills and get drunk to cope. Some of my friends have become addicted to alcohol and sleeping pills."
Soon after the assassinations commenced, journalists flocked en masse to state-run hotels such as the Mazafran Hotel in Zaralda and the Al-Manar in the suburb of Sidi Faraj, where many remain today under the protection of armed guards. The Al-Manar, a dreary, outdated tourist hotel, is home to some 700 journalists who live in cramped and barely furnished rooms, which sometimes house as many as five people. Muhammad, a journalist working for the state-run radio station Alger Chaine III, inhabits a small room in the hotel along with his wife and 10-month old child. The tiny room is equipped with a bed, a coffee table, a small portable television, and a crib for their child. There is no heat. Muhammad's life centers around the hotel: he is transported to work five days a week and says he finds himself spending the remainder of his day at the facility.
The state's continued housing of journalists like Muhammad at the Al-Manar remains uncertain, especially at a time when both the press and the government continue to boast how much the security situation in the capital has improved and how "terrorism" has become residual. Even today journalists speak of the increased feelings of security-a result they contend of the overall disorganization and weakness of the armed groups. "Now it's all over," says Malika. "I go shopping where I live. I feel secure. The pressure and terrorism has really subsided. Many agree, but some are still reluctant to go home."
The reluctance stems from lingering fears of attack, but economics also play a role. "Now there is a social aspect," said Mohammad who is originally from the from Tizi Ouzou and moved to the Algiers for work after living with his family. "Now those who have flats can go back. But we don't have an apartment." For journalists who earn meager salaries of about 10,000 dinars per month, it is financially impossible for them to rent a flat in a "safe" neighbor. "You need a decent salary to get a flat," he says. "In popular neighborhoods you can get one but it's not safe."
Journalists remain as concerned as ever about the future of their housing at the hotels. Last summer, an effort by the government to relocate some 70 journalists from the Mazafran hotel was met with furious opposition from journalists. The government had relocate the journalists in order to refurbish the hotel in advance of the Organization of African Unity summit to be held in Algiers in 1999. Authorities offered the journalists alternative housing at the Matares hotel, located in a tourist village in Tipaza several miles further west of Algiers, but the journalists protested the move, arguing that the new location would significantly jeopardize their security because of its considerable distance from the capital where most regularly commute to work. Four journalists went on hunger strike for over three weeks until the government caved in and provided them housing at the Al-Manar Hotel.
Despite their desperate bids to maintain their housing in state run facilities, journalists are anything but content with their living situation. They hope for a better future that will allow them to resume their normal lives outside of the depressing confines of the hotels. "I wouldn't like to stay here in this hotel," said Muhammad. "These are not acceptable living conditions and I feel I am losing precious time from my life."