(New York) - Algeria should end its repressive policy banning all demonstrations in the capital, Human Rights Watch said today after police blocked a small rally planned in front of the offices of state television to demand press freedom. The police detained four protest organizers in the morning as they approached the site, on the grounds of inciting a gathering "that can disturb public tranquility," an offense under the penal code. The four were questioned, then released in the early afternoon.
A law adopted in 2001 indefinitely bans all demonstrations in Algiers. The countrywide state of emergency in effect since 1992 allows Interior Ministry officials to ban any demonstration they deem "likely to disturb public order and tranquility."
"Blocking even this small gathering that was advocating more pluralism on television news shows the sorry state of civil liberties in Algeria," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
The organizers of today's demonstration had used Facebook to ask people to join a demonstration at 11 a.m. today to protest the "frightening regression in civil liberties in general and in freedom of press in particular," and to demand that "controls on public media be lifted...so that they can fulfill a genuine mission of public service." They also asked that "Algerians be permitted to create alternative stations capable of representing them and reflecting the political and social reality of our country."
The Facebook appeal, posted last week, described Algerian television as "a fearsome propaganda machine at the service of [President Abdelaziz] Bouteflika, who has made himself its editor in chief." The gathering was timed to coincide with World Press Freedom Day.
The protest organizers, Adlène Meddi, Hakim Addad, Moustapha Ben Fodhil, and Saïd Khatibi, approached the headquarters of l'Entreprise Nationale de Télévision (ENTV) in central Algiers this morning. They found a heavy uniformed police presence and streets leading to the ENTV closed off. As soon as the four began to unfurl banners, the police detained them and took them to the Boulevard des Martyrs station. Police officers questioned the men and then released them. The four said they were not mistreated.
Meddi and Ben Fodhil are journalists at the privately owned el-Watan French-language daily. Khatibi is a journalist at the privately owned el-Khabar Arabic daily. Addad heads Rassemblement - Actions - Jeunesse (RAJ), a nongovernmental youth movement in favor of human rights and democratization, and is an elected member of the Popular Provincial Assembly (Assemblée populaire de wilaya, APW) from the Socialist Forces Front party.It is not known how many persons intended to participate in today's demonstration because the barricading of streets approaching ENTV headquarters prevented potential demonstrators even from approaching it.
Under Algerian law, demonstrations require prior approval from the Wilaya (governorate). In practice, organizers of demonstrations often proceed without applying for a permit since permits are almost never granted for demonstrations that might be considered critical of the government. Even when organizers do apply for a permit, as they did for an April 24, 2010 rally for Berber rights in the city of Aïn Benian, the response is repression. Human Rights Watch wrote a letter today to Interior Minister Noureddine Yazid Zerhouni to protest the banning of that gathering and the arrest of its participants.