Limits imposed on freedom of expression are poignantly felt on the eve of presidential elections in Algeria. Three French publications were just pulled of the shelves: L’ Express, Marianne and Le Journal du Dimanche. Why? It seems, because they contained information contrary to “national values”. Marianne dared in article provocatively entitled “ Bouteflika: the last Sultan” criticize the policy of national reconciliation instigated and promoted by President Bouteflika.
The journalist Florence Beauge of the Monde newspaper recently lamented that it was difficult to cover a country when you are refused the right to visit. Amnesty International is the same position. Our last visit to Algeria dates back to the spring of 2005. Since that time, the authorities indicated that Amnesty International’s criticism on the latest amnesty measures accorded to security forces and armed groups was not well received by “the highest level of the state” and we were not able to obtain visas.
In their efforts to obliterate even the memory of massacres, enforced disappearances, torture, arbitrary arrests and other abuses that marked the internal conflict of the 1990s, the Algerian authorities are actively muzzling debate and criticism in the country. The amnesty measures adopted in 2006 silence voices that criticize the authorities’ conduct during the conflict by threatening with prison terms of up to five years anyone who dares denounce the abuses committed by the Algerian security forces. The law also reminds us that security forces and militias armed by the state were “heroes of the nation” .
Is this climate, of restriction to free expression and of government attempts to silence all voices opposing the official line, maybe an explanation of the weak coverage by the Algerian media of the latest Amnesty International report: A Legacy of Impunity: A threat to Algeria’s Future? In fact, few newspapers and not surprisingly no national television channels have mentioned the report which exposes the climate of impunity that has reigned in Algeria since the beginning of the conflict. Is it a deliberate policy or merely the result of a balancing game Algerian journalists are forced to play to be able to exercise their profession? Have they become experts at anticipating the reaction of the authorities? Amnesty International is used to being violently criticized in Algeria for its denunciation of violations in Algeria. Didn’t the newspaper Le Jour d’Algerie recently request that Amnesty International apologizes for its stances? Refer to attached article. Maybe this is simply because Amnesty International has not been allowed into Algeria since 2005?
Families of victims of the internal conflict, human rights activists, journalists and others who attempts to shed light on violations committed in Algeria or who campaign to put an end to those, find themselves subjected to continuous intimidation, harassment or even judicial pursuits. For example, Louisa Saker, who has not seen her husband since 1994, was condemned in 2008 for having participated in a non-authorized demonstration by families of the disappeared in Constantine. For what offense? For having demanded the right to know the fate of her husband.
Following her participation in this protest, Louisa was arrested, beaten up and forced by the police to commit in writing to no longer take part in this type of demonstrations. It seems that the authorities target individuals like Louisa in order to deter them from their struggle for truth and justice. The rule appears to be that no one can criticize the authorities’ conduct without repercussion and whoever dares will be punished…
The repression by the authorities also affects individuals publicly criticizing ongoing human rights violations committed by the security forces, in particular, the feared Department for Information and Security, DRS. The lawyer Amine Sidhoum faced judicial proceeding twice in the past few years. The first time for giving his business card to a client in detention and the second time for “bringing the Algerian judiciary into disrepute”. These proceedings in fact appear to be politically motivated and to relate to his public criticism of secret detention centres and of the use of torture against persons suspected of terrorism.
The Algerian authorities are ingenious and a series of legal obstacles confront Algerian human rights defenders who publicly criticize the authorities or denounce violations or corruption. Provisions on defamation in the Penal Code are used not only to punish journalists and editors-in-chief, but also activists who criticize the authorities’ conduct. For example, Hafnaoui Ghoul, a journalist and human rights defender with the Djelfa branch of the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights (LADDH) is facing judicial proceedings for defamation and contempt after five Djelfa local officials complained about articles he had published on mismanagement and corruption.
Instead of tackling past violations and their consequences or of ensuring that the DRS acts within the framework of the law, the Algerian government is closing the door to debate and has a punctilious conception of its sovereignty. Despite their repeated demands, United Nations human rights mechanisms are repeatedly denied the right to visit Algeria and to review the human rights situation in the country.
The elections are taking place today. The candidate Bouteflika raised during his campaign the possibility of further amnesties for armed groups. Are more amnesties or more truth and justice necessary for Algeria to turn the page? Yesterday, mothers, fathers, spouses, children and other relatives of the disappeared were in the streets of Algiers calling for truth and justice. The police dispersed the demonstration. How can there be a genuine national reconciliation if the victims and their families cannot even express their suffering and their demands without fearing punishment?
We hope that the elected president will respond to these calls. Amnesty International will not fail to remind him.
A last touching thought for the hundred or so journalists killed or forcibly disappeared during the internal conflict.