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Twelve Journalists Arrested

After the riots of October 1988 shook the one-party rule of the National Liberation Front, the Algerian press developed quickly into one of the freest in the Arab world.  Algerians suddenly received wide coverage of social ills, government corruption and divergent political views, despite the continued state monopoly over broadcasting and influence over much of the printed press. 

That progress has been reversed by the arrests in January of 12 journalists, the confiscation of one newspaper, and, most recently, the imposition of state-of-emergency restrictions.

Middle East Watch protests the arrests of the twelve journalists.   The actions for which they have been charged -- publishing articles attacking state institutions or printing the FIS communiqué urging disobedience within the army -- are acts of protected expression. 

The crackdown on the Algerian press began on the evening of January 22, when police entered the editorial offices of al-Khabar (The News), an independent Arabic-language daily, and arrested eight journalists.  The reason given by the police was al-Khabar's publication that day of the FIS communiqué calling on the National Popular Army to disobey the regime, and a "malicious" report which said that the Republican Guard had resigned.

Five of the eight journalists were released the following day.  However, three senior staff members, Director Mohammed Sellami, Editor-in-Chief Zaidi Sekia, and Assistant Editor-in-Chief Abdelhakim Belbatti, were brought before a judge and released only on January 25 after being charged with offenses under the penal and information codes.

A young woman who witnessed the arrests in the newsroom told the Paris daily Libération, "When the police came they did not choose, they took with them everyone who happened to be in the editorial office at that moment.  I avoided arrest because I fainted."  One of the journalists released after being held one day recalled, "We had not even been aware of the publication of this ad [containing the communiqué].  It had been arranged by the advertising department, not the editorial department.  We are not Islamists.  We have journalists of all opinions.  Our paper is moderate."18

Sellami, Zekia, and Belbatti have been charged with violations of article 96 of the Penal Code and articles 86 and 87 of the Information Code of 1990.  These repressive articles give authorities broad authority to punish journalists.  Article 96 of the Penal Code states, in part, that whoever distributes or disseminates for propagandistic purposes material "of a nature to harm the national interest will be punished by imprisonment of six months to five years and a fine of 3,600-36,000 dinars.19  Articles 86 and 87 of the Information Code make clear why that code has been called the "Penal Code Part Two" by some journalists.  Article 86 provides prison sentences for persons who publish or deliberately spread "erroneous or misleading information of a nature to harm the national order or national unity."  Article 87 holds journalists responsible for unlawful acts that they may inspire.  It deserves to be quoted at length:

The inciting by any media of information to crimes or misdemeanors against state order or national unity in cases that lead to consequences shall subject the director of the publication and the author of the offending article to penal sanctions as accomplices to the crimes and misdemeanors that are committed.  If the provocation bears no actual consequences, the director and the author will be punished by imprisonment of one to five years and a fine of 10,000 to 100,000 dinars, or one of the two.

The trial of the al-Khabar journalists has not begun.

On January 23, the day after the raid on al-Khabar, security forces arrested two senior staff members of al-Balagh (The Message), a pro-Islamist Arabic weekly.  The two, Editor-in-Chief Abdelaziz Laayoun and Director Mohamed Adnidni, were charged with "offenses against institutions" for publishing articles critical of the military and a cartoon captioned, "The army has betrayed Muslims and taken the side of the communists."

The two organs of the FIS were next.  On January 25, police surrounded the offices of the Arabic-language al-Mounqidh (The Saviour) and seized copies of the latest issue.  The police later said it was confiscated because it contained inflammatory articles against state institutions.  Three days later, Salah Gouami, the director of the newspaper, was arrested, and the editor-in-chief, Abdelkader Aiassat, was being sought.

On January 27 Fouad Delleci, editor-in-chief of the French-language FIS organ al-Forqane (The Qur'an), was arrested on charges of "attacking state institutions and inciting rebellion in the army."  A warrant was also issued for al-Forqane's director.  

Both al-Mounqidh and al-Forqane had been banned for three months during the state of siege last year, after authorities accused them of publishing articles "calling for civil disobedience and violence and incitement to commit crimes and offenses against the public order and state security."  With the suspension of the FIS as a party under the state of emergency, al-Mounqidh and al-Forqane will presumably cease publication or go underground.  Their journalists have not yet been brought to trial.

Foreign journalists have also come under pressure as the police have sought to keep the press away from disturbances.  On January 31, police prevented photographers and television crews from filming clashes near as-Sunna mosque.  On January 24, security forces prevented 12 journalists, including two Algerians, one Frenchman, five Spaniards, and four Turks, from interviewing FIS sympathizers near al-Kubba mosque in suburban Algiers.  They were taken to a police station for questioning and, according to the Agence France-Presse, four of the Spaniards, all correspondents for Spanish dailies, were ordered to leave the country by the following day.

18 Gilles Millet, "Le pouvoir verrouille les mosquées," Liberation, January 24, 1992.

19 At the official rate, there are approximately 22 dinars to the U.S. dollar.  The dollar fetches about twice that amount on the black market.

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