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Monday, February 6, 2012
Global Toolbox

Algeria: Little news, and it's not good

By Bruce Swaffield

Even if you are the most ardent journalist and observer of world affairs, you probably haven’t heard about the new media bill that was passed Dec. 14 in Algeria. It is not good news. Just how bad it is, though, is unclear.

The problem is that not much information is available, except for the original story first published by the Agence France-Presse.

AFP reported simply and succinctly that Algeria “passed a media law that drew scorn from journalists, rights activists and opposition legislators who charged that it restricts freedom of expression. The law promises press freedom but also lists 12 areas in which journalists must tread carefully to avoid undermining Algeria’s national identity, sovereignty and security and the country’s economic interests.”

As of early January, there were no other specific details about the 130 articles contained in the bill, and nothing else was posted online by either the government or media organizations.

Local journalists who are familiar with the terms complain “the wording is ambiguous and gives too much latitude to judges who can decide to fine journalists up to 3,000 euros ($3,900) and jail them in case of non-payment,” according to AFP.

One Algerian parliamentarian, Ali Brahimi, was quoted as saying the wording includes “a wide range of ideological allegiances, like respect for national sovereignty and economic interests — expressions that are so vague that they hoist an intolerable sword of Damocles over the freedom of the press and expression.”

That is all the rest of the world knows about these so-called reforms in Algeria. The balance of the facts presented indicates there is much more to the story than meets the eye. For example:

• About 40 journalists in Algiers, some wearing black tape over their mouths and carrying cardboard signs, marched on Parliament to protest the new bill.

• The director of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights harshly criticized the government. AFP wrote, “Mustapha Bouchachi, head of the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights, said the new law is a step backward from a previous bill that opponents had dubbed a ‘penal code’ and worse than other media laws in the region. ‘I find, unfortunately, that we in Algeria are a long way from the promise of moving toward openness and of letting people speak freely. This law encourages self-censorship.’”

• AFP quoted journalist Meriem Benchaouia, who said, “A law should protect journalists and give them the means of accessing reliable information, not the opposite.”

• Zoubida Kherbache, of the opposition Workers Party, added that, “Here we are closing the media,” according to AFP.

From what little I have read and seen, it seems like Algeria is one of a growing number of countries that are making freedom of the press and freedom of speech more difficult and government controlled.

I have already written to Ambassador Abdallah Baali at the Embassy of Algeria to the United States of America. I encourage you to write as well. We deserve to know more about the status of journalists in this country. Contact mail@algeria-us.org or Embassy of Algeria, 2118 Kalorama Road NW, Washington, DC 20008.

You might also consider asking the United States Embassy in Algeria to get involved. Write to Ambassador Henry S. Ensher at ACSAlgiers@state.gov.

In case things don’t appear too bad in Algeria on the surface, keep in mind that the country ranks 133 out of 178 nations in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index for 2010. According to the annual report, the media experienced more autonomy and independence in Iraq (ranked 130) than in Algeria.

Also, the Committee to Protect Journalists says that 60 journalists have been killed in Algeria since 1992.

There is definitely a bigger story here, and we should use all of our resources, both here and abroad, to spread the word.

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