REPORT ON THE SITUATION OF THE MEDIA AND OF THE FREEDOM OF THE PRESS IN ALGERIA - 1999
II) GENERAL SITUATION
1.1 The activities of the IFJ Centre in Algiers
1.2. The plans of the IFJ Centre in Algiers
III) SITUATION OF JOURNALISTS AND THE MEDIA
2.1. Organization of journalists
2.2. Hunger strike by journalists
2.3. Safety of journalists
2.4. Journalists reported missing
2.5. Infringements of the freedom of the press
2.6. Ban on the publication of newspapers
2.7. International solidarity
2.8. Visa policy
3.1 The Information Act
The Algiers Centre of the International Federation of Journalists is publishing its third annual report since it was opened on the 1 March 1996. But this year things are rather different: since 27 April 1998 the Centre has had the administrative authorization of the Ministry of the Interior, which means that it is officially and legally recognized by the Algerian government.
This report is intended to be an objective look at a profession that is changing, that is fighting and that wants to assert its existence in the face of adversity.
It was written by the Centre’s two coordinators, Khaled Mahrez, the coordinator responsible for external relations, and Lazhari Labter, the coordinator in charge of media projects.
The coordinators can be contacted via the IFJ Centre for any further information you may require:
International Federation of Journalists Algiers Centre
Tahar Djaout Maison de la Presse
1, rue Bachir Attar, Algiers
II) GENERAL SITUATION
1998 would have been a quite "peaceful" year for the Algerian press had it not been for the crisis that occurred in mid-October, following the decision of the state printers to suspend publication of several privately-owned daily newspapers.
The year began in a relatively relaxed climate. The censorship committees set up in the printing works had just been abolished, which freed Algerian journalists from the imprimatur constraint, an administrative decision requiring them to obtain the agreement of the authorities before publishing any information dealing with issues relating to security. This concession on the part of the authorities, which had long been a demand of media workers in Algeria and of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), was undoubtedly a strong signal that fomented great hopes for increased freedom of the press in Algeria. It followed an instruction to the government from the President of the Republic asking it to improve its communication policy, free the public-sector media from the cumbersome bureaucracy, make them more open to society and, generally, make a more effective contribution to the concrete expression of the principle of the freedom of expression.
New publications, that had been waiting for permission to publish for several months, were finally given the administrative green light and further swelled the ranks of the Algerian media. These included La Nouvelle République (a privately-owned French-language daily), Demain l’Algérie (a privately-owned French-language daily) and Saout El Ahrar (The Voice of the Free, an Arabic daily and an organ of the FLN). The administrative "embargo" on numerous other general information or specialized publications should be lifted in the course of 1999.
The private-sector press naturally needed no second bidding. The journalists were particularly keen to profit from this opportunity to assert their desire for a greater degree of freedom in the practice of their profession since the threat of terrorist attacks directly targeting them seems, for the time being at least, to have receded. For the first time since 1993, the date of the first attack against a journalist, no murder attempts against journalists or media workers were recorded. The renewed feeling of safety, added to the intentions to introduce greater openness publicly announced by the highest authority in the land, probably encouraged journalists to broach, albeit in a timid manner, subjects that had hitherto been taboo, such as human rights.
However, the situation should be put into perspective. It must be stressed that the signs of openness on the part of the authorities have not given rise to serious and definitive guarantees that they will go along with freedom of the press, while the ardour of the private-sector media resulted in excesses and at times things went too far.
Even though it was less oppressive than in recent years, harassment of the private-sector press, whether legal, economic or administrative, has not stopped. The most severe expression of this came on 14 October 1998 with the decision of the state printing works to stop printing the dailies Le Matin and El Watan after they were given a 48-hour ultimatum to pay their debts in full just before the start of the weekend (see the details of this affair on page 13).
The government was questioned in connection with this episode but endlessly repeated that this was a strictly commercial affair that would be resolved when the newspapers concerned had paid their debts. No-one denies that practically all the newspapers owe money to the state-owned printers and that an arrangement should be found between the different parties to resolve this situation, but, at the same time, no-one doubts that the two main daily papers targeted by this measure, Le Matin and El Watan, are being punished for publishing a series of articles and letters implicating two high-ranking Algerian politicians, namely the principal advisor to the President of the Republic and the Justice Minister, who were both forced to resign.
This affair, which received extensive news coverage, paradoxically enhanced the credibility of the private press and enabled it to assert its vitality even though, towards the end, the solidarity between editors was somewhat strained. The importance of the existence of an independent press in Algeria is becoming increasingly evident with the approach of the early presidential election planned for April 1999. Many opposition candidates are counting on the independent press to help enhance the transparency of the elections, alongside the national institutions that exist for this very purpose.
The conflict between the printers and the editors above all made it possible to confirm the emergence of the National Union of Journalists (Syndicat national de journalistes - SNJ) as a major partner when dealing with any issue linked to the practice of the profession. Whereas people expected the editors to organize the "resistance" to the aggressive stance of the state-owned printing works, the SNJ stole the show by organizing the most significant demonstrations and actions demanding the return of the suspended newspapers.
The creation of the SNJ, following the journalists’ meeting on 4 June 1998, was unquestionably a milestone in the long quest of Algerian journalists for a representative, democratic and independent organization. A strong and credible journalists’ union has become an overriding necessity, particularly since socio-professional problems are growing increasingly acute within the profession. After the first few years following the creation of independent newspapers, which was a period marked by voluntarism and the need to ensure the survival of these newspapers at any cost, it seems that the time has come for frank discussions between employee journalists and editors on the subject of working relations, terms of recruitment, remuneration and career development. In effect, it should be pointed out that the differences in pay, within the same newsroom, between employee journalists and their shareholder colleagues at times reach insulting proportions.
However, these developments in the private-sector written press seem to have spared the public sector press. The announcement of early presidential elections admittedly dynamized national television, which regularly organizes live political debates, but, on the whole, the situation remains far removed from the spirit behind the instruction given by the President of the Republic in November 1997.
In brief, we can say that the end of the year was as bad for the press as the start of the year was good. The government had promised to revise the 1990 Information Act and to promulgate a new Advertising Act. The state monopoly on means of audio-visual communication and advertising was to be abrogated by two pieces of legislation that are being prepared. The bringing of these two bills before parliament has been postponed to a later, unspecified date. It has to be said that the announcement in September 1998 of early presidential elections completely disrupted the government’s political programme.
The same government had officially announced that a budget of
400 million dinars (more than 6.5 million dollars) had been earmarked for aid to the press for 1998. At 31 December 1998, this money had not been made available.
1.1. The activities of the IFJ Centre in Algiers
On 27 April 1998, the Minister of the Interior gave the Algiers Centre of the International Federation of Journalists full administrative authorization. This was timed to coincide with the visit to Algiers of Mr Aidan White, Secretary General of the IFJ. The ambiguity concerning the legal status of the IFJ’s Algiers Centre was finally lifted after a wait of more than two years.
This gesture on the part of the Algerian authorities was confirmed by the facilities granted to the Centre for the organization on 29 and 30 May 1998 of the regional seminar on the role of the Algiers Centre of the IFJ in organizing solidarity between the media and journalists in the Maghreb. These facilities mainly concerned the granting of entry visas to Bettina Peters, deputy secretary general of the IFJ, Gilles Hervé, a French journalist, and to three Moroccan journalists, including Medjahed Younous, the secretary general of the Moroccan National Press Union (Syndicat national de la presse marocaine - SNPM). Journalists from the Tunisian Journalists’ Association (Association des journalistes tunisiens - AJT) turned down the IFJ’s invitation.
Over two days, Algerian and Moroccan journalists along with their European guests debated three questions:
- How to encourage the independence of the media in the countries of the Maghreb (institutional guarantees, creation of independent associations of journalists, promoting professionalism)?
- What action should be taken to encourage complementarity between the countries of the Maghreb in the domain of journalists’ training?
- How to favour exchanges between the media and journalists of the Maghreb (distribution of newspapers, opening of websites for the media, organization of seminars on professional issues)?
A final declaration was adopted at the end of this seminar. (See annex).
While the Centre enjoyed every facility for the organization of the regional seminar, this was not the case for the third seminar on the revision of the Information Act, which was to be held on 19 February 1998 in Constantine. The local authorities of this town in eastern Algeria banned the organization of this seminar without
any valid reason, even though the Centre had been able to organize two seminars on the same theme in Algiers (on 3 December 1997) and in Oran (on 25 December 1997).
1.2. The plans of the IFJ Centre in Algiers
The final declaration of the Algiers regional seminar is in itself a work programme for the Centre for the coming months. Its implementation will require substantial financing.
Alongside this programme, in 1999 the Centre intends opening a website and making a documentation centre available to journalists. This project will be implemented thanks to the kind support of the government of the Netherlands, via the Dutch Embassy in Algiers. The project includes the acquisition of furniture for the documentation centre (tables, chairs, shelves) 6 multimedia PCs, 1 printer, as well as subscriptions to specialist reviews, the purchase of books and publications relating to the
world of communication, etc. All the expenditure linked to the implementation of this project is covered by financing provided by the Dutch government.
III) SITUATION OF JOURNALISTS AND THE MEDIA
2.1. Organization of journalists
Media workers have long suffered from a lack of a union framework to defend their material and moral interests. The few attempts that were made to set up a union worthy of the name all failed, while journalists’ living and working conditions have steadily worsened.
Given this state of affairs, which is prejudicial in more ways than one, the participants at the day of study devoted to the revision of the Information Act organized by the IFJ’s Centre in Algiers on 3 December 1997 passed a motion calling on the corporation "to set up a truly representative organizational framework". On 7 December 1998, a group of journalists from the dailies Le Soir d’Algérie, La Tribune, El Watan, Le Matin, El Khabar and Liberté launched an appeal "to all colleagues in the written press and in radio and television in the public and private sectors to mobilize the editorial collectives in each organ around concrete concerns and appoint representatives with a view to setting up a national coordination of editorial offices."
This appeal was widely echoed by journalists in the privately-owned written press and on national public radio. The editorial coordination group (Coordination des rédactions - CDR), an informal structure mainly responsible for preparing the assizes for a trade union organization, met for the first time on 14 December 1997 and, after an in-depth debate, decided to scan the documents published by certain private-sector dailies for proposals concerning the Information Act –, the revision of which was announced by the government – and to ascertain the socio-professional concerns of journalists.
A large-scale and in-depth information, awareness raising and mobilization effort was carried out in the editorial offices by CDR delegates over a period of six months. On 4 June 1998, assizes were organized at the headquarters of the main trade union group in Algiers and were attended by some 250 journalists, representing the various organs and enterprises of the French-language and Arabic written press, radio and television.
At the close of a hard day of discussion and work, a trade union organization, the National Union of Journalists (Syndicat national des journalists - SNJ) was created. The SNJ is composed of a National Council of 37 members, including 6 regional representatives, and a National Executive Bureau of 11 national secretaries headed up by a general secretary, Rabah Abdellah, a journalist on the daily newspaper Le Soir d’Algérie and a former CDR coordinator. Article 4 of the articles of association of the new journalists’ organization, which stipulates that the SNJ is open "to all journalists without distinction of political opinion provided that this opinion does not argue in any form whatsoever for fanaticism, violence, crime, racism and sexism", introduces a whole new element into the discussion: this is the first time that an Algerian trade union organization has explicitly banished sexism as being a form of ostracism.
All the observers highlighted the democratic spirit that characterized the discussions, the work and the elections to the different trade union bodies from start to finish. From the outset the SNJ undertook to create trade union sections in all press companies. By the end of 1998, 11 sections had been created within 11 private-sector press companies, and 4 more in certain regions. With a view to the conference scheduled for 1999, work on creating structures is continuing at the level of the national public radios, while talks have already advanced considerably with journalists working for the public television channels, the national press agency (Agence Nationale de Presse - APS) and all the other daily newspapers in the public and private sectors. The SNJ has 400 members and plans to double or even triple its
membership before the end of the year. The SNJ has submitted its application for administrative authorization and is still waiting to be officially recognized by the authorities. The SNJ has also requested IFJ affiliation.
2.2. Hunger strike by journalists
After exhausting all the available means of being rehoused in a secure site, journalists residing at the hotel Mazafran in Zeralda, on the west coast some 20 kilometres from Algiers, began an unlimited hunger strike on 2 July 1998 in protest at the decision of the authorities to transfer them to the hotel Matarès in Tipaza, located more than 70 kilometres from the capital and their places of work. The lack of security in the area around the hotel and on the road leading to it was the main reason the journalists put forward to justify their refusal to move to the new location. Almost 100 journalists are concerned. A few of them, with the support of their colleagues, chose to go on a hunger strike as a last resort.
The SNJ, which had only just been created, took charge of this affair from the outset. It alerted the authorities of its seriousness and launched an appeal on behalf of the hunger-striking journalists which received widespread support.
Officials from political parties and from national civil society organizations travelled to the hotel Mazafran to show their solidarity with the hunger-striking journalists. The secretary general of the Algerian General Workers Union (Union générale des travailleurs algériens - UGTA) also assured the hunger strikers of his full support.
Given the deteriorating health of the hunger-striking journalists and the failure of the authorities to address the issue in a serious manner, on 13 July the SNJ organized a meeting at the Tahar Djaout Maison de la Presse in the centre of Algiers to demand an urgent solution to the problem. SNJ officials decided to organize two other meetings, the first in front of the prime minister’s office on 14 July and the second on 15 July in front of the hotel Mazafran in Zeralda, backed up by a general journalists’ strike. The SNJ also decided to boycott coverage of official activities.
In a press release dated 13 July, the IFJ expressed "its total support and solidarity" and called on "all the parties concerned by this problem to find a solution that guarantees the journalists’ safety while respecting their independence and dignity".
After a hunger strike lasting three weeks and on the back of widespread and sustained mobilization by the profession, editors, civil society organizations and political parties, the hunger-striking journalists agreed to end their action after the authorities agreed to free up additional rooms in three hotels closer to Algiers.
The SNJ played a key role in the mobilization and protest movement which was hailed by all the observers. Once all the
conclusions had been drawn from this affair, the union set about raising the issue of journalists’ housing in general and attempting to find solutions with the help of all the parties concerned.
2.3. Safety of journalists
With regard to journalists’ safety, 1998 was the first year since 1993 – when Tahar Djaout was murdered, the first Algerian journalist to be killed – during which there was not a single violent physical attack against a journalist or media worker. It should be borne in mind that for five consecutive years journalists and media workers were targeted individually and collectively by the various extremist terrorist groups: the Armed Islamic Groups (Groupes islamiques armés - GIA), the Islamic Salvation Army (Armée islamique du salut - AIS) and the Armed Islamic Jihad Front (Front islamique du djihad armé -FIDA). These attacks resulted in the murder of 60 journalists, 10 media workers and the destructive and murderous bomb attack on the Maison de la Presse Tahar Djaout in the centre of Algiers on 12 February 1996.
Pending settlement of the accommodation problem, which the SNJ has since taken on board, the government continues to ensure accommodation for a large number of journalists in secure sites.
2.4. Journalists reported missing
Four journalists, Mohamed Hassaine of the privately-owned French-language daily Alger Républicain, Kaddour Bousselham of the public-sector evening daily paper Horizons, Aziz Bouabdallah of the private Arabic daily El Alem Essyassi (The Political World) and Djamil Fahassi of the national French-language radio station Chaine III are still reported missing.
According to the confessions of the "emir" of the Oran GIA (western Algeria), quoted by the private French-language daily El Watan of 2 July 1998, Kaddour Bousselham was kidnapped by a group of GIA terrorists headed by the "emir" Slimale Lahbib and had his throat cut after being horribly tortured. He was buried somewhere in the Stamboul forest, near Mascara (western Algeria). Kaddour Bousselham was kidnapped in March 1994 in Hassine near Mascara. He had been living in a tent with his family after his house had been destroyed by a violent earthquake.
According to unconfirmed sources, Djamil Fahassi is alive and has taken refuge in Europe. His wife, who visited the IFJ’s Centre, denies these rumours. Djamil Fahassi worked on the French-language weekly of the former FIS Al Forkane (banned). He was first arrested on 26 February 1992 with the militants of the disbanded Islamic Salvation Front and, after being interned in a
camp in southern Algeria, was released on 31 March of the same year. Nearly three years later, he had resumed working at the radio station when he was again reported missing on 8 March 1995.
2.5. Infringements of the freedom of the press
On the other hand, harassment of journalists and the press has continued apace.
5 January: Following a complaint lodged by the Minister for Youth and Sports, Mr Zoubir Souissi, the director of the privately owned French-language daily Le Soir d’Algérie, was given a 3-month suspended sentence and a fine of 1,500 dinars in damages to be paid to the plaintiff. The complaint for insults was lodged after the publication of an article in which a local correspondent had made a mistake concerning the amount of the subsidy granted by the Ministry to a local football club.
4 February: The privately-owned French-language daily La Tribune was not published in eastern Algeria. The senior management of the eastern Algeria printing works (Société d’impression de l’est - SIE) claimed this was for "non payment", while the newspaper said it was "in violation of the agreements reached between editors and printers".
11 February: The collective of the privately-owned French-language weekly Ouest Info decided to "again provisionally suspend publication of the newspaper". The release published by the collective said that this decision was taken following "a cycle of pressure and intimidation (...) aimed at silencing Ouest Info".
19 February: The study day devoted to the Information Act planned in Constantine (eastern Algeria) by the Algiers Centre of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and a local section of journalists was banned by the local authorities without written notification and with no valid reason.
11 March: A group of three terrorists attempted an armed raid against the premises of the privately-owned French-language weekly Détective (published in Oran, western Algeria). The attack was foiled by the security guards of the publishing company. The members of the terrorist group were arrested by the police.
16 March: The journalist Mourad Hadjersi went on an unlimited hunger strike to protest against the "refusal" of the Ministry of Communication and Culture to give him authorization to publish a economic magazine. On the same day, the Ministry gave him the authorization he had been waiting for for one year.
18 March: In a press release, the editorial coordination group (Coordination des rédactions - CDR) condemned the failure to involve journalists in the debates organized in Oran (western Algeria) by the Ministry of Communication and Culture to discuss the draft information bill. While pointing to "the biased character of this initiative" and "the absence of any desire to open up a serious debate on a piece of legislation that involves the future of the freedom of the press and the freedom of expression", the CDR decided to "undertake an initiative aimed at enabling journalists to nevertheless give their opinions on the content of the draft bill".
- Mr Timothy Balding, general manager of the World Association of Newspapers (WAN), stated at a press conference held at the end of the visit of the delegation he led to Algeria that a declaration had been submitted by his delegation to the Algerian government asking it to respect the independence of the press and to promote freedom of expression and press freedom.
24 March: The privately-owned French-language daily Le Jeune Indépendant was evicted from the premises it had occupied since 17 October 1997 in the Tahar Djaout Maison de la Presse (central Algiers).
16 April: The privately-owned Arabic daily El Khabar (The News) was subjected to a printing ban for "commercial reasons". In a joint declaration, the editors of 9 dailies protested against the decision of the Algiers printing company (Société d’impression d’Alger - SIA) not to print the newspaper even though negotiations between editors and printers were still in process. On 18 April, publication of El Khabar was authorized again.
27 April: Publication of the privately-owned Arabic youth magazine Dounia (World) was banned and without the collective being notified of any reason for this decision.
3 May: A meeting and debate on the socio-professional questions of journalists planned by the CDR for the World Freedom of the Press Day was banned by the management of the Tahar Djaout Maison de la Presse, which operates under the supervision of the Ministry of Communication and Culture, on the pretext that no authorization had been given.
5 May: The journalist Mounir Abi of the privately-owned French-language daily Le Soir d’Algérie was sentenced by the court in Algiers to 3 months’ imprisonment and a fine of 1,500 dinars, and ordered to pay 30,000 dinars in damages to the interim mayor (Délégué exécutif provisoire - DEC) of Birkhadem (inner suburbs east of Algiers) for publishing an article in September on "the despoilment of the district’s landed property".
16 May: El Kadi Ihsane, a freelance journalist working for the privately-owned French-language daily Le Quotidien d’Oran and the privately-owned French-language magazine Conjoncture, was charged by the court in Algiers after being arrested on 13 May at the Houari Boumediène international airport in Algiers and spending two days in the premises of the state security police in Bab Ezzouar (inner suburbs east of Algiers) for an affair dating back to 1993 (complaint for "threats and insults" lodged by the managing director of the public-sector French-language daily Horizons). The independent editors of the main privately-owned French-language and Arabic dailies (El Khabar, Le Matin, Le Quotidien d’Oran, Le Soir d’Algérie, Liberté, El Watan, El Alem Essyassi, Le Jeune Indépendant, La Tribune, L’Authentique) reacted on the same day by issuing a press release demanding "the release of El Kadi Ihsane" .
27 May: Mr Zerhouni, placed in charge of "Arabization" by the head of the government, violently attacked journalists and the privately-owned French-language national newspapers at a seminar on the generalization of Arabic. "This press," he said, "is not a French-language press, it is pure French both in content and form. (...) This press has got nothing in common with the Algerian people, their culture and their traditions, except for the fact that it is domiciled in Algeria. (...) In order to (manipulate) it uses as an instrument the language of the colonizer-destroyer. (...) The existence of the French-language press," he concluded, "is in stark contradiction with the Constitution". As a sign of protest against these remarks that were judged to be insulting and intolerable by the journalists, the privately-owned French-language daily Le Matin decided to boycott the activities of the members of the government in its edition of Saturday 30 May.
31 May: The local correspondent in Mila (eastern Algeria) for the private Arabic daily El Khabar (The News) was given a 6-month prison sentence and a fine of 2,000 dinars following a complaint lodged by the local government concerning an affair involving the disappearance of pilgrims’ passports.
15 June: Journalists residing at the Mazafran hotel in Zéralda (west of Algiers) were given notice to leave their secure rooms for other hotels further afield owing to "restoration work".
16 June: Touhami Madjouri, a journalist on the private Arabic daily El Alem Essyassi (The Political World) was arrested at Algiers international airport when he went to pick up a parcel of books. He was released the following day after being interrogated by the police about the contents of one of the books.
2 July: Journalists staying in the Mazafran hotel began an unlimited hunger strike as a sign of protest against the decision to move them from their hotel to other sites.
12 July: The local correspondent in Maghnia (western Algeria) on the French-language daily El Watan was questioned a second time by the investigating magistrate at the court in Tlemcen (western Algeria) concerning a report published on 8 February on "the population of Tlemcen and terrorism, the resistance of the citizens".
- After publishing four editions, the Algiers printing company (Société d’impression d’Alger - SIA) refused to print the privately-owned French-language weekly El Borhane (The Proof) on the grounds that it should have been produced by the "El Moudjahid" printing works.
16 July: Several newspapers are not published out of solidarity with the hunger-striking journalists at the Mazafran hotel.
18 July: Meeting of journalists at the Tahar Djaout Maison de la Presse (Algiers Centre) as a sign of support for their hunger-striking colleagues at the Mazafran hotel.
23 July: After a 21-day hunger strike, the journalists at the Mazafran hotel end to their protest after the authorities found an alternative solution to the conflict.
5 August: The Arabic daily Saout El Ahrar (The Voice of the Free), the organ of the National Liberation Front (Front de libération nationale - FLN), sacked several striking journalists and technicians.
9 August: The privately-owned French-language dailies Le Matin and El Watan and the privately-owned Arabic newspaper El Khabar were not published in eastern Algeria. According to the director of the eastern Algeria printing works (Société d’impression de l’est - SIE), this was due to "a breakdown of the press fax". Was this a "political breakdown?" asked El Watan, which printed a reminder that the three newspapers had reported on the affair involving the academic Ali Bensaâd, sentenced to death by the court in Constantine (eastern Algeria) for "terrorism", and had provided proof of his innocence.
24 September: Mr Benchicou, director of the privately-owned French-language daily Le Matin was tried by the Algiers court on three counts of "libel" following complaints lodged by the French-language daily L’Authentique and the Arabic daily El Açil (The Authentic Arabic Version), which belong to the private press group owned by Mr Betchine.
30 September: Mr Benchicou, director of the privately-owned French-language daily Le Matin, was given a 4-month suspended prison sentence by the Criminal Chamber of the Algiers court and ordered to pay 18 million dinars in damages to the French-language daily L’Authentique belonging to the private press group owned by Mr Betchine.
14 October: The privately-owned French-language dailies Le Matin, El Watan, Le Soir d’Algérie, La Tribune and the privately-owned Arabic daily El Alem Essyassi (The Political World) were ordered by the state printing works in Algiers, Oran (western Algeria) and Constantine (eastern Algeria) to settle all their payments in arrears for 1996 and 1997 within 48 hours or face suspension.
17 October: Publication of the privately-owned French-language dailies Le Matin, El Watan, Le Soir d’Algérie, La Tribune was prevented by the state-owned printing works after they were given an ultimatum on 14 October.
- By way of protest against the suspension by the state printing works of the four newspapers, the privately-owned Arabic dailies El Khabar and El Alem Essyassi joined them out of solidarity.
8 November: After a 24-hour strike, the privately-owned Arabic dailies El Khabar and El Alem Essyassi and the privately-owned French-language newspapers resumed publication.
15 November: Faced with the persistent refusal of the state printing works to print it, the privately-owned French-language daily Le Matin was printed at a private printers.
22 December: After a 52-day printing ban, the state-run printing works started printing the private French-language daily Le Matin again, after negotiations between the newspaper’s management and the printers.
30 December: The Algiers court dismissed the action that the management and the collective of the Arabic newspaper El Açil (The Authentic Arabic Version) belonging to the private press group owned by Mr Betchine had brought for "libellous allegations" after the publication in August of a pamphlet by Mr Benchicou, director of the privately-owned French-language daily Le Matin entitled
"Call off your dogs, Mr Betchine!". The complaint had been lodged in support of the legal action started by the management and collective of the daily L’Authentique against Mr Benchicou.
2.6. Ban on the publication of Algerian newspapers
On Wednesday 14 October 1998, the privately-owned French-language dailies Le Matin, El Watan, Le Soir d’Algérie and the private Arabic daily El Alem Essyassi (The Political World) were given an ultimatum by the state printing works in Algiers ("El Moudjahid" and SIA), Oran (SIO, western Algeria) and Constantine (SIE - eastern Algeria) ordering them to settle all their payments in arrears for 1996 and 1997 within 48 hours or have their publication suspended. On Friday 16 October, the printing works announced to three (Le Soir d’Algérie, La Tribune and El Alem Essyassi) of the five dailies that they could continue to be printed normally in return for the payment of a "symbolic" sum. The three newspapers refused this offer and showed solidarity with the two dailies really targeted by this measure, Le Matin and El Watan. The five newspapers were not printed on Saturday 17 October. The private French-language daily Liberté and the private Arabic daily El Khabar, which were not concerned by the problem, followed later on by the privately-owned French-language daily Le Quotidien d’Oran, decided to voluntarily suspend publication as a sign of solidarity with their fellow newspapers. The suspension thus became an unlimited strike by seven privately-owned daily newspapers.
Was the ultimatum given by the state-run printing works, just before the start of a weekend, motivated by purely commercial reasons? The most common view at the time was that it was not. What was the exact situation, then? To fully grasp the complexity of the question, a number of facts should be borne in mind:
- since January 1998, privately-owned newspapers, or at least those that were suspended, have been paying in full all the bills for services provided in the course of that year.
- Regarding the debts from 1996 and 1997 (urgent payment of which was demanded by the printers), the two parties (private editors and state printing works) agreed on a settlement schedule. These debts resulted from a commercial conflict between the two parties over printing costs. During the negotiations on printing costs, which lasted for two years (1996 and 1997), the editors decided to pay only 80% of the price demanded by the printers until an agreement was reached. The agreement finally reached in April 1998 allowed for the debts to be paid in installments up to 31 December 1998.
- The newspapers targeted by the suspension are not necessarily those with the biggest debts. We know, however, that they are the biggest customers of the printing works and account for the bulk of their turnover.
- Lastly, and most importantly, the decision of the printing works to demand payment came just a few hours after the Minister of Communication and Culture declared that the government would not remain "inactive" after El Watan published serious accusations levelled at the Justice Minister by a group of magistrates who had chosen to remain anonymous.
Everyone agrees that this is a political affair. How else can one account for the fact that the "El Moudjahid" printing works refused, on Wednesday 21 October, the cheque given to it by the daily Le Matin in settlement of its debts?
This suspension came against an eventful political backdrop, marked by the announcement of early presidential elections. The two daily newspapers that were targeted published a series of articles and interviews containing very serious accusations initially implicating the official closest to the President of the Republic and, subsequently, the Justice Minister. In the end, both were forced to resign.
A broad national and international movement of solidarity with the press gained momentum, involving both political parties and the public.
The National Union of Journalists (SNJ) wholeheartedly committed itself to this affair "which is an infringement on the
freedom of expression and of the press and jeopardizes the working tool of dozens of employees." It played a decisive role in mobilizing journalists, politicians, civil society and the public.
2.7. International Solidarity
In a petitionary text entitled "A cry for the release of Pius Njawé" published on 19 May 1998 in the main Algerian daily newspapers, over 100 journalists protested against the one-year prison sentence handed down to the Cameroonian Pius Njawé, director of the daily Le Messager, who was jailed for having made public information concerning the state of health of President
Paul Biya. The Algerian journalists, who feel that "the fight for the freedom of expression is the combat of the whole of mankind" demanded the release of their colleague.
2.8. Visa Policy
Many media and international organizations for the defence of the freedom of the press complain about the Algerian authorities’ restrictive policy with regard to the granting of entry visas, even though the authorities reject these accusations and give precise figures: in 1998, 626 journalists (377 journalists, or 60%, to cover major events, and 249, or 40%, to cover things other than major events) from some 40 countries representing 361 organs of the written press, radio and television were given authorization to enter Algeria.
It should also be noted that Algerian journalists still have great difficulty in obtaining entry visas for European countries, even when the draconian conditions imposed by the embassies of these countries are satisfied. By way of an example, the coordinator of the IFJ Algiers Centre, who was supposed to travel to the United States to attend a seminar at the invitation of the International Crisis Group was unable to make the journey because the Belgian Embassy in Algiers refused to give him a transit visa, and this despite the fact that he had an entry visa for the United States, his Brussels-Washington plane ticket and all the papers
required for a visa application. In both directions, a more flexible visa policy for journalists would enable them to do their job better.
3.1. The Information Act and the Advertising Act
The new Information Act, which was due to be passed by the National People’s Assembly (Assemblée populaire nationale - APN), after its adoption by the government, during the autumn session 1998, was postponed until the spring session and a date for a parliamentary reading has still not been set. It will probably not be passed, assuming it is not called into question, until after the presidential elections in April 1999. The current Minister of Information and Communication hinted that he would prefer a code of ethics to an Information Act. There is also talk of a possible abolition of the Communication Ministry.
This is because the new Act provides for the creation of a High Council on Communication (Conseil supérieur de la communication - CSC). It should also permit an opening up of the audio-visual sector to private interests. The new Advertising Act, which should put an end to the government monopoly on institutional advertising, has also yet to be read by the Assembly.
Internet access is no longer the exclusive preserve of the government since the publication in the Official Gazette (Journal officiel) of August 1998 of Executive Decree 98-257 of 25 August
1998. Private access providers can now set up businesses and 1999 will surely see the start of the development of the Internet in Algeria.
The problems encountered by the Algerian press in 1998 are highly indicative of its strengths and weaknesses. The great determination of Algerian journalists to fight all forms of pressure to obtain greater freedom of the press is unquestionably an important asset for the future. It is equally obvious that this determination, on its own, is not enough and what the Algerian press has to do today is give itself the means to fight for freedom. The conflict between editors and printers showed how fragile press enterprises are in financial, managerial and organizational terms, and there is no guarantee that further conflicts of this kind will not arise in the future. The
government’s promise to abolish the state monopoly on public and institutional advertising could provide more solid protection against attempts to stifle press enterprises by financial means.
REGIONAL SEMINAR ON THE TRAINING OF AND COOPERATION BETWEEN JOURNALISTS IN THE MAGHREB (ALGIERS 29-31 MAY 1998)
The participants at the Regional Seminar of the IFJ held in Algiers on 29, 30 and 31 May 1998:
Are happy to have the opportunity to meet as Maghreb media workers, but regret the absence of representatives from other countries in the region,
Recognize the importance of independent and representative unions of journalists,
Are pleased with the initiative of the editorial office coordination group (Coordination des rédactions - CDR) in creating a union of journalists in Algeria,
Wish journalists, in each of the countries of the Maghreb, to have greater and freer access to the media in neighbouring countries,
Reaffirm their support for the IFJ Centre in Algiers and propose the following programme of activities with the aim of promoting professionalism and cooperation between journalists in the Maghreb:
1) The IFJ Centre in Algiers should organize seminars, particularly on:
- Journalists’ royalties: international standards, work contracts and collective agreements;
- Editorial independence: the role of editorial charters;
- The rights of freelance journalists: professional status and working conditions;
- Civil liberties and human rights;
- Duality and cohabitation of the public and private press;
- Relations between the European Union and the Maghreb.
Whenever possible, these seminars should be organized with the participation of unions from the Maghreb that belong to the IFJ.
2) The IFJ Centre in Algiers in association with IFJ member unions in the region, and in particular the Moroccan National Press Union (Syndicat national de la presse marocaine - SNPM), should organize a union development programme for Algerian journalists focusing on membership, organization campaigns and collective bargaining.
3) The IFJ Centre should set up a documentation centre to hold all the IFJ documentation on the rights of journalists and publications relating to the training of journalists.
4) The IFJ and its member unions in the region should set up an electronic network with a view to exchanging information on developments in the media;
5) The IFJ Centre should create a website for journalists from the Maghreb.
6) The IFJ should launch a Maghrebian edition of DirectLine in cooperation with the Algiers Centre and the executive committee representative in the region. This monthly newsletter should be published on the website of the IFJ Centre in Algiers and contain articles prepared by the other IFJ members in the region. This edition should be distributed in each country in the region.
Regarding the training of journalists, the participants reassert the need for adequate training structures and:
Call on press enterprises to invest in more training for journalists and offer regular training opportunities to their staff and freelance journalists;
Call on journalist training institutes and press enterprises in the region to make greater efforts to introduce more practical training periods for students of journalism;
Call on the training institutes in the region to set up advisory committees including media workers to advise on pedagogical content and journalists’ training requirements.