Death Threats and Censorship
Although the present government is successor to the one party that has dominated the country since independence, Algeria is not a totalitarian state. Both an opposition and a private press are sanctioned, although every effort is made to muzzle them. As a result, the press is caught between limited areas of possibility for action and freedom. If Algeria is to become a democracy, which officially it claims to be, it is imperative that these areas be extended.
Their development depends mainly on the following four actors.
The National Assembly, where all political opinions within Algerian society are represented (with the exception of the Front Islamic du Salut, or FIS) and where the major differences dividing that society are expressed and debated: between support for Islam or for a secular society; for an authoritarian regime or a democracy; for Arab, Berber or French culture; in favour of confrontation or dialogue with the FIS, etc. The justice system, which is far from independent of the government; if “terrorists” are put on trial in Algeria, there are insufficient guarantees that justice will prevail. Civil society represented by thousands of citizen-based organisations that have started up since the beginning of the 90s. However, their development is hampered by inappropriate legislation, financial difficulties and practices inherited from the single party system. the private press, which is the subject of this report.
In Algeria, privately run newspapers constitute the only organisations with any degree of power and autonomy, fragile though this may be. For hundreds of thousands of Algerians, this private press represents the only possibility of access to information other than that presented by the government-controlled audio-visual media. To a greater extent than the National Assembly elected in June 1997, the private press offers a real scope for freedom of expression within Algerian civil society, although some within the regime itself would prefer its silence and others would like to see it controlled under Islamic law. Together with the National Assembly and the country’s civil society, in the short term this media outlet constitutes the best investment and the greatest hope for the democratisation process in Algeria.
It is these private newspapers that have held out against official versions of the events of past months and revealed to the world the large-scale massacres that have taken place and the tragic fate of their victims. The private press often constitutes the main, or indeed the only source of credible information on these events; without it, the Algerian tragedy would largely have remained hidden.
Algerian journalists have paid a high price for their search for freedom. Sixty of them have been killed since 1993 and Islamist groups have directly or indirectly claimed responsibility for most of these assassinations. The last one was carried out in summer 1996, implying that these armed groups have now changed their strategy.
In theory, Algeria’s press is free: the Information Law of 1990 ended state monopoly of the press. However, the State of Emergency declared in 1992 and measures in regard to information ‘relating to national security’, as well as the use of various forms of censorship, have placed serious limits on press freedom. In addition, the State has retained a monopoly of both paper supplies and the printing industry, as well as a near-monopoly of advertising through its ownership of public advertising companies. Press freedom is further limited by the necessity for press chiefs to live under the protection of the security forces.
Overall, despite these constraints the press displays a great degree of independence in regard to the authorities and a great deal of freedom of expression, notably in its editorials. This is demonstrated by press coverage of recent events such as local elections and the criticism of political leaders, and even in the handling of information relating to national security. On the other hand, human rights violations committed by the State are still not sufficiently covered by the press. This is the main problem.
Although representative of different political and economic opinions, the six independent newspapers with the largest distributions (El Khabar, El Watan, Liberté, Le Soir d’Algérie, La Tribune and Le Matin) have all tried to promote a political model based on the separation of state and religion, and reject any attempt at dialogue with the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut, or FIS).
The private press has survived the attempts by Islamic fundamentalists’ to destroy it and has resisted pressures by the government to reduce its independence. Indeed, it acts as an indicator of the degree of political openness in Algeria. The press is currently engaged in a battle for economic independence, as well as for access to information on the conflict and the violence.
To a greater extent than the work of the parliamentary assemblies that are accused of not being genuinely representative, especially the Senate, and which are controlled by President Zeroual’s party, the autonomy and freedom granted to the Algerian press constitute a barometer of the political will for democratisation, which the Algerian authorities claim to pursue. The extent to which newspapers are able to cover information relating to national security and to criticise extortion and human rights violations by the security forces, will be important tests for the future.
Finally, this independent press, born in 1990 in a country without a democratic tradition, is already probably the freest press in the Arab world.
However, television and radio, which play a fundamental role in a country with a strong oral tradition, remain entirely in the hands of the State, although this monopoly is offset to a certain extent by the proliferation of satellite dishes that allow people to receive foreign channels, particularly French ones.
The International Crisis Group makes the following recommendations to governments and international organisations.
1. To support the existence and development of the private press, protesting against all censorship or attempts at intimidation. Furthermore, any co-operation agreement with Algeria should be dependent on the ending of the state monopoly of paper and printing companies. 2. To promote the education of Algerian journalists and encourage contacts with journalists from democratic countries. 3. To request that Algeria open up the audio-visual sector and lift all restrictions on the freedom of movement of both Algerian and foreign journalists in Algeria. 4. To support those civilian-based organisations that are independent of both the State and the Islamic parties. These organisations are often totally impoverished, but are indispensable in consolidating the opening up to democracy.