(Beirut) – Two executives from a privately owned Algerian television channel that airs a satirical political talk show were placed in pretrial detention on June 24, 2016, Human Rights Watch said today.

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika looks on during a swearing-in ceremony in Algiers on April 28, 2014.

© 2014 Reuters

An Algiers court ordered the pretrial detention of Mahdi Benaïssa, the manager of KBC TV, and Ryadh Hartouf, head of production for another talk show, citing irregularities in the station’s permits. The order came five days after security forces shut down operations at the studio producing the talk shows, Ness Stah (Roof People) and Ki Hna Ki Ness (Just Like Everybody Else) and confiscated production materials.

“Jailing TV executives on the pretext of film-permit irregularities is disproportionate, to say the least,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “The clear intent is to muzzle private media.”

Jailing TV executives on the pretext of film-permit irregularities is disproportionate, to say the least.

Sarah Leah Whitson

Middle East and North Africa Director

Ki Hna Ki Ness, which began broadcasting on June 6, stood out for its uninhibited tone, satirical content and critical views of the government. During a June 16 broadcast the Algerian singer Salah Gaoua referred to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika as “a vegetable”, an allusion to his weakened health.

Judicial authorities argued that irregularities in film permits justified detaining both Benaïssa and Hartouf, along with Nouria Nedjaï, the Culture Ministry official who had issued the licenses for the shows.

Cherif Rezki, owner of the El Khabar media group, which owns the station, told Human Rights Watch the arrests were the result of an investigation into the two talk shows. He said security officials had summoned Benaïssa to a police station on June 22, ordering him to bring proof that he had permission to air the two programs. They arrested him that night.

The two programs had been suspended since June 19, when security forces shut down the studios. Rezki said the reason given was that the studios were not authorized to tape on-site. The studios had previously been used by the privately-owned channel Atlas TV, which was shut down by the government and its equipment seized in 2014. Atlas TV never resumed operating.

KBC TV has already been embroiled in legal conflict with the Communication Ministry over the purchase of El Khabar, after a majority of its shares was sold to Ness Prod, another private company.

The lawyer for Benaïssa and Hartouf, Khaled Berghel, told Human Rights Watch that the men were accused of making false statements under article 223 of the penal code and complicity in the abuse of office under articles 33 and 42 of a June, 2001 anti-corruption law. Article 223 provides a prison term of up the three years for causing the issuance of an official document that contains false statements or provides false information. Articles 33 and 42 provide for up to 10 years in prison for a public servant or an accomplice who knowingly abuses their office for undue personal advantage, or on another person or entity’s behalf.

The defense lawyers for the two men filed an appeal of the detention and the charges on June 26. The pre-trial court has 10 days to rule on the appeal and to decide whether to free the three defendants.

These cases illustrate the vulnerability of privately owned channels in Algeria, Human Rights Watch said. A new audiovisual law, passed on March 23, was designed to provide greater media freedom. The law established an audiovisual regulatory body, which began operations on June 20. This body is in charge of monitoring compliance with the audiovisual law on licenses and shooting authorizations.

The government should release the men and review the charges against them, Human Rights Watch said. The charges are incompatible with the protection of free expression and freedom of press under both international law and the new Algerian constitution, which stipulates that offenses involving the news media may not be penalized by imprisonment.

Algeria ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1989 and must respect the guarantees of freedom of expression set forth in Article 19 of that treaty.

However, Algeria’s framework legislation governing freedom of expression, access to information, and audiovisual production fall far short of the international standards applicable. The law governing provision of information, adopted on January 12, 2012, was among legal reforms the government promised in response to an outpouring of protests in Algeria and the rest of the region.

But it contains several articles that constrain freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Article 2 states that news journalism is to be “a freely practiced activity” in keeping, however, with extremely broad concepts such as “national identity, the cultural values of society, national sovereignty and national unity, as well as the requirements of national security, national defense, public order, and the country’s economic interests, among others.”

Article 41 of the new Algerian constitution, adopted by parliament on February 7, 2016, guarantees freedom of the press, with the qualification that it be exercised “within the boundaries of the law and respect for the nation’s religious, cultural and moral norms and values.” The same article states that journalistic offenses “may not be punished by deprival of personal freedom”.

Update: 

On July 18, 2016, the First Instance Court of Sidi M'hamed in Algiers sentenced Nouria Nedjaï to one year in prison, suspended, and a fine of 100,000 Algerian Dinars (US$909). The court sentenced Benaïssa and Hartouf to six months, suspended, and a fine of 50,000 Algerian Dinars.