President Abdelaziz Bouteflika gave firm undertakings to ensure respect for free expression when he was elected for a second term in 2004 but unfortunately they were not carried out. Reporters Without Borders asks him to keep his promise if, as is generally expected, he wins another term in this week’s presidential election.
Dear Mr. President,
As you will undoubtedly win a third term in the 9 April presidential elections, Reporters Without Borders, an organisation that defends press freedom worldwide, would like to remind of the undertakings you gave to respect free expression immediately after your last election victory. You reaffirmed a “determination to ensure freedom of expression” in Algeria in May 2004. You said in a message to the press: “We again want to strongly emphasize our determination to ensure an effective use of freedom of expression by everyone, in strict accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
There have been few positive developments since then. Press offences, for example, are still punishable by both jail terms and fines. Article 144b of the Algerian criminal code (in effect since 2001), provides for sentences of two to 12 months in prison for any statement that is deemed to be defamatory. This threat of imprisonment hangs over all reporters and editors. Lawsuits are constantly being brought against the media and the courts are always busy. This situation does not correspond to the undertakings you gave and is not worthy of a country such as Algeria.
Detention is not an appropriate way to combat defamation and Reporters Without Borders urges you to introduce the reforms that are needed to decriminalize press offences.
Furthermore, although the Algerian government ended its press monopoly in 1989, it has maintained its control of printing and distribution. It is true that the dailies El Khabar and El Watan managed to create an independent company that operates two printing presses and an independent distribution system (Algérie Diffusion & Impression de Presse), but only these two newspapers use them. All other newspapers depend entirely on state-owned printers. The communication ministry’s creation of a printing press holding company in July 2008 just reinforced government control. Such a system reduces the room for manoeuvre for newspapers that want to take a critical look at Algerian society and politics.
The situation is identical as regards newspaper distribution. Aside from El Khabar and El Watan, which have succeeded in creating an independent network, the other newspapers still have to rely on the state distribution companies.
The Algerian state’s monopoly of newsprint imports buttresses its hold over the print media. And the government’s control over state advertising gives it an additional economic weapon against recalcitrant media. The National Publishing and Advertising Agency (ANEP), which was created in December 1967, has since April 1968 controlled the advertising placed by state agencies and companies, allocating it in accordance with the editorial policies of the recipients and rewarding those newspapers that support the government.
Even more serious for a country that claims to be democratising is the fact that the state maintains total control over radio and television. The authorities are still in charge of all broadcasting. The only privately-owned TV stations allowed to operate are the foreign satellite TV stations.
Foreign journalists, both those from France and those from other countries, routinely encounter problems obtaining a visa to visit Algeria whenever a presidential election is held. There is no shortage of examples. Tunisian journalist Sihem Bensedrine, who was invited by the Algerian Human Rights League to participate in a media monitoring programme, was denied entry on arrival at Algiers airport on 4 April.
These archaic features of the Algerian news media system must be dismantled and replaced by media diversity. Reporters Without Borders urges you to implement your electoral promises now. The right of Algerians to free and independent news is at stake
I thank you in advance for giving our comments your careful consideration.
Jean-François Julliard, Secretary-General