Launch of the IFJ Solidarity Centre in Algeria, Mission Report, January 15-18, 2005

This mission was supported by the European Commission and International Media Support. The views exposed herein are those of the IFJ.

Background


Algerian press’ reputation for being lively and critical of the authorities with a relative editorial freedom is about to be overturned.


Journalists in Algeria have a strong sense of their commitment to democratic values as they suffered many casualties of media staff and professionals killed in terrorist acts throughout the 1990s. Many journalists still resent daily this situation as they still live together in hotel rooms where a minimum of protection ensures some security. Some of them have been living in those conditions for more then 15 years. Yet the IFJ among other organisations reported in the recent months what has to be defined as a real crackdown on free media, further to the interdiction of the main daily opposing the government “Le Matin” and the imprisonment of its editor Mohamed Benchicou (http://www.ifj.org/default.asp?issue=mainresult&Language=FR&cntr=DZA). Several interventions of police forces in the “Maison de la Presse”, a media cluster gathering most of the newspapers, and pressures on independent media have raised serious concerns on the future of freedom of expression in the country. Of course the “model” of Tunisia where self-censorship in favour of governmental interests is endemic at all levels and in all media sectors remains in everybody’s head. The Algerian authorities have already managed to use civil and penal laws to send journalists to jail (Benchicou’s case is a notorious example).


Amendments to the penal code also set out prison terms and fines for insulting or defaming the president, MPs, judges and the army. In those circumstances there are several opportunities to target the private press. A special court in Alger has been organized to trial journalists every Tuesday. Most of the remaining “independent” journalists are confronted to more than fifteen legal cases each, in which they are personally attacked by the Algerian State. The public attorney requested systematically prison sentences even if the civil parties, during defamation cases for example, were often looking only for a formal condemnation (payment of a symbolic dinar). As the private press and independent press have been directly under attack, there is little chance that the audiovisual sector could be opened up. The government still maintain a firm grip on State radio and television.


IFJ Solidarity Centre


The IFJ has strived to revive its “Solidarity Centre” in the “maison de la presse”, which was active during the dark hours of the terrorist terror in the 90s. The Centre was reopened at the end of 2004 and the launch mission was an opportunity to formally present its contribution in the framework of this programme. The centre is located at the core of the media cluster and is surrounded by newspapers’ offices and press agencies. This strategic position should allow for the preparation of a substantial number of activities in order to mobilise journalists and discuss professional issues. The centre has also prepared for a planning of conferences addressing relevant professional issues. Exhibitions and a number of rather informal events and gatherings will also be organised in order to strengthen professional solidarity and the visibility of the national union.


Official launch of theIFJ Solidarity Centre


One of the immediate results of the coordinator’s activism was the organisation of a formal ceremony in the Sheraton hotel in Alger to formally launch the programme. The ceremony was offered with the courtesy of the Sheraton hotel. A number of journalists (40) were present in the event, despite the hotel location, a bit far from the city centre. A number of diplomatic representatives also attended the event, including the ambassadors of Denmark, Netherlands, the head of the EU delegation, the USA first deputy ambassador and the media officer from the French embassy. The lawyer of Mohamed Benchicou, in jailed for more than 9 months, and Hafanoui Ghoul, a journalist that has been jailed for six months because of his writings during the election campaign and who was freed at the end of 2004, were present. Journalists from the international and national media were covering the event. The head of cabinet of the Algerian Minister of Information was also attending the ceremony.


Abdellah Rabah, General Secretary of the national union of journalists, introduced the ceremony and presented the centre. The IFJ representative and the local coordinator then had the opportunity to present the programme of the Centre and the various partners involved. They also explained the objectives of the programme and issued a formal call to the Algerian President to release Mohamed Benchicou. The ceremony was generally a success because of the large attendance and the high profile of the audience. Most diplomatic representatives expressed their support and their willingness to provide direct financial backing on specific activities.


Status of journalists


There has been little time during the mission to address the details of the working conditions. The survey has been launched and translated in French for further diffusion. Generally, there is no real definition of the status of journalists in the country. Most of journalists do not have contracts and there is no collective agreement. Salaries are decided on an individual basis by the editors. Women journalists represent approximately 20% of the working journalists.


Status of the union


The Syndicat National des Journalistes seems to have a relatively clear idea of what needs to be done on a short to middle term basis. The union is in a dire need of expertise particularly in terms of financial management and in order to extend its resources base. The perception of fees remains symbolic. The government used to provide a financial support equivalent to euros 7000, which was suppressed in 2000 further to some interventions of the union. The union does not have any premises and cannot base on logistical support. All the union representatives are acting on a voluntary basis.


The union has not been able yet to organise collective agreements. Shop stewards need to build up their expertise in order to be in a position to bargain an agreement for each media outlet.


The union has been participating in a EU programme led by a Brussels-based consortium. There have been some problems during the implementation of the contract, which has blocked the effective organisation of activities. The IFJ is to investigate the specific status of this programme.


The leadership of the union points out to a dire need for the following activities:


- Trade union development training

. Training on wage policies and labour issues (some local experts could be available) – introduction and defense of work contracts 

. Training on collective bargaining

. Expert to provide cycles of training to shop stewards on collective bargaining (target: around 30 people trained; 2 in each media outlet)

. Production of leaflets on journalist’s rights (target= 3000 journalists)

. Workshop on financial management and improvement of the union resource base


- Legal environment 

.  Dialogue with justice auxiliaries: campaign against the notion of “press crimes” leading journalists to jail 

. Recruitment of a permanent legal assistant in the IFJ/SNJ centre in order to provide direct support to trailed journalists

. Organisation of a workshop on the relations between press and justice

. Production of a manual that would draw some lessons learnt in relation with the previous conflicts: the report would look up the list of tensions, provide some background information, reasons and object of the conflict, procedures adopted before and during the trial, definition and implementation of sentences 

. The report would lead to the creation of a working group that would follow up on its main recommendations 

.  Production of a manual on the relations between press and police / press and justice on the model of a guide produced by the Belgian journalists’ association 

. Creation of a website specializing on “Tuesday trials”

. Workshops on press law and advertisement law (need to open the advertisement market which is now monopolized by a State agency)



- Professional training 

. Workshops on ethics and editorial independence 

. Workshops on authors ‘rights: information of journalists and review of the law on intellectual property; specific information on the management of websites and rights of journalists in regards with the reutilization of their work


Further information: Bertrand Ginet; +32 2 235 22 06