Relations between the privately-owned press and the government worsened in 2004 as several papers campaigned against President Bouteflika's re-election bid and suffered serious consequences after his resounding victory.
A culture and communications ministry official expressed delight that a large number of journalists had come "for the first time from all over the world" to cover the 8 April 2004 presidential election. Also for the first time, army declared it would not interfere with the vote, which President Abdelaziz Bouteflika won overwhelmingly on a platform of "national reconciliation," promising peace and prosperity after a grim decade of Islamic violence.
But the battle between the president and Ali Benflis, his former prime minister and secretary-general of the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN), was being fought through the media long before the campaign officially began in March.
Little impartiality in the state-owned media
The state TV broadcast a special election programme in which all six presidential candidates had a chance to present themselves, but the station continued to give enormous coverage to the president's campaign and his movements. Radio and TV, both government monopolies, relayed the official line, allowing little room for argument. No political debate was aired apart from the official campaign.
Live coverage of delicate topics was banned and press reviews had to avoid quoting privately-owned papers about corruption, people who had "disappeared" and rioting in the Kabylie region.
The opposition and civil society still have no routine access to state media (required under article 10 of the 1990 press law) and most Algerians have long deserted the state-run media to watch foreign stations with satellite dishes. Opposition parties, whether legal or illegal (like the Islamic Salvation Front, FIS), spoke to the country through stations based abroad.
FIS leader Abassi Madani, banned from the Algerian media after 12 years in prison, chose the pan-Arab station Al-Jazeera. Supporters of Benflis used K-News, the news station owned by fugitive ex-billionaire Abdelmoumène Khalifa which resumed broadcasting from London a few months before the election.
To hear the views of lawyer Ali Yahia Abdenour, head of the Algerian Human Rights League (LADDH), or Berber extremist Belaid Abrika for the first time Algerians could watch Beur TV, the North African community station in France.
From the beginning of the year, much of the privately-owned press attacked (sometimes not very professionally) the authoritarian habits of the president (nicknamed "the bigoted dwarf"), who they accused of using state institutions, money and media to hijack the election.
Taming the privately-owned press
Bouteflika retorted in March by accusing some journalists of harming the country as much as "terrorists" and vowed to fight "press mercenaries."
After winning the election, he was as good as his word and the government moved to tighten up the 1990 press law that has allowed the rise of an independent press but whose most liberal aspects have never been properly applied. The reform aimed to made it harder to set up new publications. Bouteflika and prime minister Ahmed Ouyahia made very clear the state would keep its monopoly of radio and TV. "I don't want to put these weapons of mass destruction in irresponsible hands," the president said in early April.
The government unofficially restored its control of public advertising during the year. State firms and bodies are legally autonomous but are now no longer allowed to place state advertising (which is just over half of all advertising) and the job has been handed over to the government-controlled National Publishing and Advertising Agency, ANEP, thus giving the authorities a means to financially strangle some papers.
Meanwhile the government has helped set up a dozen tightly-controlled, very small-circulation daily papers in which most state advertising is placed.
Local and resident foreign journalists were banned in February from working for more than one foreign media outlet at a time. "No country in the world allows a journalist to work for several employers," a culture and communications ministry official told Reporters Without Borders. "Media outlets must have exclusive correspondents." The office of Al-Jazeera was closed on 30 June. An Agence France-Presse (AFP) photographer had not been able to get accreditation for 2004 by the end of the year.
Journalists hounded by police and courts
Self-censorship returned to several papers after repeated police summonsing of journalists, dozens of government-inspired libel suits, biased court rulings and the imprisonment of four journalists.
An amendment to article 144 of the criminal code increased penalties for libel, allowing between two months and a year's imprisonment plus fines for anyone insulting or libelling the president. Dozens of journalists were heavily fined or given suspended jail sentences. Four were sentenced to prison terms and two, Mohammed Benchicou and Ahmed Benaoum, were still in jail at the end of the year.
Hafnaoui Ghoul, local correspondent for the daily El-Yum in Djelfa (270 km south of Algiers) and regional head of the LADDH, was imprisoned for libel between May and December. He was conditionally freed unexpectedly on 25 November after a visit by Bouteflika to the remote area of the country, but dozens of lawsuits against him were not dropped.
The governor of Djelfa has long been irritated by his reports in El-Yum about corruption and abuses by local potentates, including involvement of local officials in the death of 13 babies in the town's hospital, and the routine harassment of provincial journalists.
The independent anti-Bouteflika daily Le Matin, already in the government's sights, was ordered in March to pay within a week 39 million dinars (450,000 euros) as part of 1998-2001 tax arrears. Managing editor Mohammed Benchicou had written a fiercely-worded pamphlet the previous month calling the president an "imposter."
He was sentenced to two years in prison on 14 June for illegal transfer of funds and immediately jailed in El-Harrach prison, near Algiers. He had been arrested at Algiers airport on 23 August 2003 with a bank deposit slip for a large sum in dinars. Nearly 50 lawsuits have been heard or are pending against him, including some for press offences.
The paper's main building was auctioned off on 26 June to pay its tax arrears and the paper stopped appearing on 24 July after the state printing firm Simpral refused to give it more time to pay its debts.
"After jailing our managing editor, the authorities have asked advertisers to boycott us, the banks to keep their distance and now we cannot print the paper," said editor Yussef Rezzug. The daily El Djarida and the French-language daily Le Nouvel Algérie Actualité also stopped appearing because they could not pay their debts.
Ahmed Benaoum, head of the press group Er-rai El-Aam, and Ahmed Oukili, editor of the newspaper Er-rai, were each sentenced to two months in prison on 3 July for "insulting a public body" by criticising the head of the state security office in Oran. Benaoum, who has been convicted in various other libel and common law cases, was still in prison at the end of the year and faced dozens of other lawsuits.
- 4 journalists were imprisoned
- 2 were given suspended prison sentences
- 6 were arrested
- 2 threatened
- dozens summoned by police and courts
- 5 refused accreditation
- and 6 media outlets censored
Why was I thrown in prison?
Hafnaoui Ghoul, correspondent for the daily El-Yum in Djelfa (270 km south of Algiers) and a human rights activist, was imprisoned for six months for supposed libel. He was unexpectedly freed conditionally last 25 November after a visit by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to this remote part of the country. He was awarded the 2004 Reporters Without Borders – Fondation de France Prize.
I was sent to prison on 24 May 2004 just seven weeks after President Bouteflika's 2 April re-election after a campaign in which he boasted the country had made great progress towards democracy and freedom of expression. But his claims are just empty words. My imprisonment for libel was a new stage in the crackdown on public, political and trade union freedoms and on the media. The authorities think they can't survive unless they repress journalists and human rights activists.
In the past they've suspended many daily papers, including some of the most respected, such as Essahafa, Algérie Aujourd'hui, L'Opinion and El Hadath, as well as the weeklies Al-Maw'id, Lettre de l'Atlas, Coulisses and Nouveau Matin. Several dailies were suspended in 2003, officially because they were in debt but also because they'd irritated the authorities.
My show trial lasted three hours, on 24 May. Fourteen charges were made and I could see it'd all been illegally arranged in advance. While I was been in prison, four detention orders were issued in record time based on false accusations and invented evidence, especially after live TV statements by Bouteflika and the justice and information ministers.
I'd overstepped the mark in the government's eyes. Rights activists and the Algerian Human Rights League (LADDH) have been calling for years for respect for basic rights. They denounce bureaucratic and police abuses and administrative incompetence. The regime relies at local level on shady businessmen and special interests protected by officials who claim to represent the government.
In my articles, I investigated the mysterious death of 13 babies at Djelfa hospital, the occasional use of torture by the authorities, the waste of public money and the humiliating and cowing of ordinary citizens.
This was the last straw for the authorities. The LADDH statements I wrote, my articles in various daily and weekly papers as well as magazines, plus some interviews in which I criticised the deplorable and disgraceful situation, all angered powerful local figures, who prefer to have corrupt journalists who praise them to the skies. Reporting the facts honestly is very dangerous in Algeria. I realised this as I moved from paper to paper. I felt the injustice and pain suffered by ordinary people.
I suffered it myself when I was hauled into court and during six months of being moved from prison to prison waiting for legal decisions. However, I was also able to see at first hand what jail conditions were like and how prisoners were treated. I truly realised the extent of the mental and physical suffering of my compatriots.