In July 2016, when Mohamed Tamalt, an independent journalist was sentenced to two years in prison, for defaming the President of Algeria and public institutions, the country’s media was stunned by the decision. The wheels of the regime’s constitutional reform engine had been set into motion. The legal reforms included three progressive articles related to freedom of expression: Article 48 guarantees freedom of speech and association for citizens; Article 50 guarantees freedom of print, audiovisual and online media and states that press offences could not be met with imprisonment; Article 51 introduces a new right, namely the freedom to obtain information, documents and statistics, and to circulate them.
Yet, Tamalt was arrested under criminal law, for expressing his views on public corruption and nepotism on Facebook. Following a hunger strike that he started in prison, he died under unclear circumstances in a hospital, without full access to information about the cause of his death. The courts blatantly violated all three new articles.
Tamalt’s detention and tragic death cast a grim shadow over the effectiveness of legal reforms in guaranteeing freedom of speech and media in Algeria.
This November 3, which marks the 65th anniversary of Algeria’s war of independence from France, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in the capital for the 39th week in a row, seeking a “new revolution.” Six months since pro-reform demonstrations started in Algeria, people continue to march, while the military-backed government holds onto power.
The current regime has called for elections on December 12, with five candidates contesting in the polls. But the protesters demand sweeping reforms across all sectors before a fresh vote. With the country mired in a complex political transition, breaking the current stalemate requires a complete overhaul of freedom of expression and media laws.
Algeria is at a crossroads in its political landscape since President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s ouster. Media pluralism and freedom of public expression, the tenets of long-term democratic reform, deserve honest introspection and accountability from lawmakers and the governing bodies. The window of opportunity to implement true reforms, guaranteed by explicit laws and grounded in practice, is now.
Despite a wave of political reforms that the authorities started in 2011, in reaction to the so-called Arab Spring,Algeria remains on the lowest rungs of freedom of expression. A 2017 Reporters without Borders poll ranks the country at 134 out of 180 countries.
Changes, although limited, have taken place. Since the start of protests in February, the electoral law has been amended and the national independent election authority established to ensure the "transparency and regularity" of the polls. The arrests of officials in the highest ranks of the military and civil services show some willingness for reform. But the real litmus test is the ability of all media to function independently.
So far, the reach and functioning of the press have been significantly impeded by formal and informal pressures. A new vote will hold little meaning without reforms that are legally codified, but even more importantly implemented with accountability.
Such implementation will need to go beyond the legal, and address the combination of “linguistic, cultural, generational and ideological” divides that dictate the Algerian media landscape, as explained in a recent reportby the London School of Economics. These prevailing norms must be dismantled.
Dismantling formal and informal pressures
There is an immediate need to counter formal and informal pressures that are exercised on the work of the two crucial forces for the sustainability of a democracy: civil society and the media.
As the protests mature, the mobilising groups are looking to build more trust and cooperation in order to draw new roadmaps for reform. Since the banning of civil society structures in 2012, organized meetings, like the ones that took place in June and July, have been difficult to repeat. The groups must be granted full freedoms of assembly and association. But the Algerian government continues to exercise formal pressures by considering gatherings as “riots” when authorization is not secured, and with a penalty of three months of imprisonment.
On the other hand, media outlets wrangle a combination of informal pressures. Most of them are tied to political parties and hence biased in their coverage. Private and public actors use media as a propaganda tool by purchasing advertisements and airtime. In order to prevent vested parties from compromising the journalistic integrity of news media, advertising laws that guarantee freedom of choice for the media and a code of ethics to guide their actions, must be put into place.
Existing media reforms fall short
It is equally important to closely scrutinize the existing reforms in the media sector. The new law replacing the 1990 media law, decriminalises certain offences - for example, reducing imprisonment to fines. But it still restricts freedom of speech, in contravention of international conventions that Algeria has ratified.
For instance, intentionally vague legal language prevents collaboration with foreign media, thereby reducing access to information for citizens inside the country, but also for those outside its borders. This has created a global information gap. For instance, Said Chitour, a fixer who collaborated with several international media organisations, including the BBC and the Washington Post, was arrested in June 2017 on charges of providing confidential information to diplomats. He was sentenced to 16 months in prison.
In fact, freedom of access to information itself is not a fully protected right under the current laws. Instead, the new text defines information as an “activity.” This means that the creation of any press entity is subject to government authorization because it is considered a “company” that is involved in the “activity of information distribution,” and not a body that guarantees citizens' right to access information.
In relation to freedom of the press, the 2016 constitution calls for the protection of “religious, moral and cultural values and principles of the nation” as the priority. But lawmakers have not provided a clear definition of what “undermining” such values mean. For instance, Slimane Bouhafs, a community activist, was sued and sentenced to five years in prison in 2016, for “denigrating Islam” through his Facebook posts, while the nature of insults was not articulated. Such deliberate abstraction has created a culture of self-censorship.
The very laws that are meant to bring precise interpretation to the constitutional amendments are creating broad stroke values that allow the judiciary and executive branches to control the press.
Moving forward with reform
The first step towards real reform is to revise Article 19, the international covenant on the right to freedom of opinion and expression. On a national level, Algerian authorities must revise the 2012 media law, in line with their international obligations. Judges must stop using arbitrary detention and arresting independent journalists under criminal laws, as an intimidation tactic. Imprisoning human rights defenders like Hassan Bouras for accusing the judiciary and police forces of corruption is not exactly a case of law enforcement ‘leading by example.’ While the Algerian constitution clearly states that press offenses cannot be punished by prison sentences, courts have often used criminal law in practice.
In tandem, the newer generations of journalists and opinion leaders must be taught the craft of journalism and the most pressing issues in the country, to foster sound editorial judgements. This would create a young forcethat is capable of defending freedom of expression and thrive in the long run. Therefore, the international community must support civil society organisations that have been galvanizing strength over the past months, and further pressure the government to comply with the recommendations included in the Universal Periodic Review on media freedom.
Promoting freedom of the press and expression in Algeria is best supported through the formation of independent media outlets. With Algerians demanding more access to information, expanding professional media voices is the only way forward.