Algeria: Journalists sentenced to harsh prison terms amid growing crackdown

The Algerian authorities must immediately end an escalating campaign of media harassment which has recently seen two prominent journalists handed harsh prison sentences simply for expressing their views or for covering protests, said Amnesty International today.

Since the Hirak protest movement, which is calling for radical political change in Algeria, started in February 2019, at least eight journalists have been imprisoned over their reporting or social media posts, often after being convicted on bogus charges such as “harming Algeria’s territorial integrity”, “insulting the president of the republic” or “inciting a gathering”. Several news websites well known for their critical stance towards the government are facing disruption to their accessibility via Algerian networks.

“The Algerian authorities are willing to do whatever it takes to silence criticism. Journalists have recently been imprisoned for sharing videos, criticizing the president, and expressing support for protest movements,” said Amna Guellali, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“Amnesty International is calling on the authorities to cease the systematic judicial harassment of journalists and to respect the right to information by lifting the blockade on news websites.”

Judicial harassment of journalists

On 24 August, a first-instance court in the city of Constantine sentenced journalist and activist Abdelkrim Zeghileche to two years in prison over two of his Facebook posts. Zeghileche is the director of the independent radio station Radio Sarbacane. According to one of his lawyers, the first post described Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune as “a fraud who was brought in by the military” and led to Zeghileche being charged with “insulting the president of the republic”.

In a second Facebook post, published on the page of the political initiative Constantine – Perspectives Algériennes, Zeghileche called for the creation of political parties, which led to his conviction on the charge of “harming the integrity of the national territory”. Since his arrest on 23 June, Zeghileche has been detained in Koudiat prison in Constantine.

In another high-profile case, on 10 August, Sidi M’hamed first instance court in Algiers sentenced prominent journalist Khaled Drareni to three years in prison over his coverage of the Hirak protest movement, as well as his appearances in foreign media. Drareni was charged with “harming the integrity of the national territory” and “incitement to unarmed gatherings”. Drareni is the founder of the Casbah Tribune website and the Algeria correspondent for TV5 Monde, a French TV network. He was convicted along with activists Samir Benlarbi and Slimane Hamitouche, who were each sentenced to a two-year suspended prison sentence.

Drareni, Benlarbi and Hamitouche filed appeals against their convictions and a trial to hear these is due to begin on 8 September.

On 4 August, journalist Mustapha Bendjama, editor-in-chief of Le Provincial, a regional newspaper, was interrogated in the eastern city of Annaba for around 90 minutes for a post he shared on his Facebook page demanding the release of a detained Hirak activist. Le Provincial had previously published articles and commentary in support of the movement’s demands. According to Bendjama, he has been interrogated at least 20 times in relation to his coverage of Hirak protests and is facing three separate legal cases over his Facebook posts.

According to the National Committee for the Liberation of Detainees (CNLD), which monitors the trials of Hirak activists, on 17 June, Ali Djamel Toubal, a correspondent for the Ennahar newspaper based in the western city of Mascara, was sentenced to two years in prison before he was provisionally released on 18 August. On the day of his arrest, Toubal shared a video on Facebook in which a gynaecologist talked about the deteriorating working conditions for doctors in the city of Ain Amenas.

Between 12 June and 8 July, Merzoug Touati, a journalist with news website L’Avant-Garde Algérie, was detained in the eastern city of Béjaïa while heading to cover a protest in support of detained Hirak activists. The first instance court in Béjaïa fined Touati 100,000 Algerian dinars (around US$776) for “offending public officials”.

“All these journalists are being punished for carrying out their legitimate work. Instead of bullying journalists, the authorities in Algeria must ensure that all journalists in the country are able to carry out their work free from intimidation, harassment and threat of arrest,” said Amna Guellali.

According to the CNLD, as of 25 August, at least 42 individuals are detained in connection with their participation online and offline to Hirak protests.

Disruption of media outlets

In addition to the harassment of journalists, several news websites have been made inaccessible in Algeria, with the authorities admitting that they have blocked at least two of them. On 15 April, Minister of Communication Ammar Belhimer, admitted that the authorities and without prior notification, have blocked two online independent media, Maghreb Emergent and RadioMPost, pending “further legal proceedings” against its director, Ihsane El Kadi, for “defamation and insult” against president Abdelmadjid Tebboune. The two media outlets remain blocked and inaccessible in Algeria.

Other several news websites well known for their critical stance towards the government are facing disruption to their accessibility via Algerian networks. For example, Tout sur l’Algerie (TSA) and Interlignes have been mostly inaccessible since 2019.

Since 23 August, online news website L’Avant-Garde Algérie has been inaccessible since 23 August 2020.

Amnesty International ran a technical test on 26 August 2020. It found that, while it was able to access all three websites either by connecting to them from outside Algeria or using a virtual private network (VPN) inside the country, it could not do so when using the state telecommunications operator, Algérie Télécom, from within Algeria.