(New York) — Human Rights Watch today called on the government of Algeria to end the politically motivated financial pressures against four private dailies that have led to a three-week-long strike by seven of the country’s leading newspapers.

The four papers were squeezed after they ran a series of unprecedentedly critical articles attacking top presidential advisor General Mohamed Betchine and Justice Minister Mohamed Adami, apparently hastening their resignations.

Following the publication of the exposés, which many observers characterized as a campaign targeting Betchine and other allies of President Zeroual, the government-owned printing presses on October 14 informed El-Watan, Le Matin, Le Soir d’Algérie and La Tribune that they would have to pay their debts in full within forty-eight hours. This demand reportedly contradicted an understanding reached between newspapers and printing presses earlier in 1998, and appeared to single out particular titles for their critical coverage.

Following the notification by the printers that they intended to suspend services unless these four dailies paid their arrears, the printers informed two of them, El-Watan and Le Matin, that their printing was being suspended. In response to the printing halt, Le Soir d’Algérie and La Tribune, along with three other dailies, Liberté, El-Khabar, and Le Quotidien d’Oran, went on solidarity strike, leaving the country without seven of its leading dailies. The last three resumed publication on November 8. El-Watan announced that it had repaid all its depts to the printers on November 9, but as of November 10 publication had not resumed. During the strike, many of these newspapers published articles and declarations daily on the Internet.

Sudden demand for debt payment, in apparent disregard for existing understandings on repayment, is a method that Algerian authorities have used previously to exploit their monopoly on printing presses to punish critical newspapers while favoring those that toe the line.

The popular Arabic daily Ech-Chorouk was temporarily unable to publish in 1997 after its public-sector printer stopped printing it, citing unpaid bills. Ech-Chorouk eventually got a court to order its printer to resume printing the newspaper on the grounds that the printer had breached a contract with it. In December 1996, the opposition weekly La Nation was forced to shut down when its public-sector printer demanded full payment of arrears. La Nation remains closed, although it has reportedly reached agreement with printers on debt repayment and has been given authorization to resume publication.

Another vehicle of carrot-and-stick pressure on the press is the centralized agency that determines placement of all advertising purchased by public-sector entities, the main source of advertising revenues for Algeria’s print media.

The New York-based Committee To Protect Journalists reported, in a communiqué dated October 28, that Communications Minister Habib Chawki had assured its representatives that newspapers could establish private printing facilities without government interference. Human Rights Watch welcomes this assurance and believes that the availability of private-sector printers is a safeguard of press freedom.

In the present situation of state monopoly over printing presses, Human Rights Watch urges state-owned presses not to practice discrimination on political or other grounds in their dealing with client publications. We also call on the government of Algeria to intervene with state-owned printers to rescind the demands for immediate debt payment that contradict earlier understandings and appear motivated by a desire to silence particular titles because of their outspokenness. Such steps will help to protect freedom of expression, a right enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Algeria is a signatory.