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Affaire Benchicou : L'arbitraire

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Liberté de la presse en Algérie

Notre solidarité agissante avec Mohamed Benchicou

Journalists behind bars ?

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The repression that has been stifling the Algerian press worsened yesterday with the condemnation of five professionals to firm prison sentences, including the director of the Matin, Mohamed Benchicou, and Hassane Zerrouky, journalist for l’Humanité.

The Algerian powers that be just delivered their definition of liberty for the press via its court rooms. In the context of two affairs implicating journalists for the Matin, a local newspaper whose presses have been silent since June 2004, the courts of Alger pronounced heavy sentences against Matin journalists as well as against the director, Mohamed Benchicou, who has been jailed for the past ten months at this point.

Youssef Rezzoug, recently editor-in-chief for the Matin, and Yasmine Ferroukhi were both sentenced to three months’ imprisonment for an investigation implicating leaders of Sonatrach, the Algerian public works company specialized in energy resources. Abla Chérif, along with Hassane Zerrouky, journalist for l’Humanité, were condemned to two months’ prison. As for Mohamed Benchicou, his sentence is for five months! These sentences are extremely harsh for an affair where the plaintiffs only requested a symbolic dinar in compensation. A trial lacking attention from the media

These condemnations constitute an attack on the freedom of expression and basic human rights. The verdict, which initially was to be pronounced last week, was delayed for a few days as a result of this newspaper’s mobilization, as well as the demonstration organized in front of Paris’ Algerian embassy.

Communist, Socialist and Green senators and deputies supported our initiative. Unfortunately, with the exception of Agence France, the French media didn’t sound the least echo of this demonstration. Not a single article was published in this regard.

This deafening silence is an ally for Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who is using the penal code to browbeat the journalists. Perhaps their mistake was for resisting the wave of Muslim fundamentalism during the 1990s while certain political figures were hiding out far from Alger, in the shelter of other Arab capitals.

Are our Algerian colleagues being penalized for doing their jobs, denouncing abuse in any form, including the misappropriation of public funds and the implication of certain people close to the inner circle of power in these affairs which can be considered white-collar crime?

Clearly, the Algerian powers that be don’t appreciate having their laundry washed in public. Today, all journalists are targets of repression. However the “Matin” bears the strongest brunt, for having established a direct link for such affairs between the development of a liberal privatisation strategy of Algerian national resources and the increasing pauperisation of the population.

Under such conditions, freedom of expression and association are extremely limited, and those who point a finger at corruption and make vague attempts at maintaining the society’s democratic principles have become dangerous agitators who must be silenced. Economic sanctions are not adequate, so prisons have become silent chambers. Basically, that is the message that the Algerian authorities are getting across.

What recently happened to the director of “Soir d’Algérie” is another example of such methods. The court of appeals of Alger examined the law suit opposing the “Soir d’Algérie” and the board of directors of the Algerian customs office. Initially, Fouad Boughanem, director of the publication, and Djillali Hadjadj, author of the “Soir corruption” column were slapped with a fine for having published an article in January 2002 on the customs office. When this went to the court of appeals, the State prosecutor asked that the sentence be made more severe. The suit is still under deliberation. Every week, newspaper directors and journalists are being dragged in front of the tribunals like petty criminals.

“We support our Algerian journalist colleagues, and we are asking the Algerian government to respect the unfettered profession of journalism.” This is one of seven resolutions adopted during the first meeting of Mediterranean journalists in Almeria, Spain on April 16th. Meeting participants asked the Algerian government “to respect freedom of the press and to agree not to put journalists behind bars.

They also called on the government to revise or modify the penal code “so as to protect and guarantee the liberty and plurality of information” and to thus ensure the independence of the judiciary powers. In their final declaration, the Almeria attendees hope that “solidarity among Mediterranean journalists may provide an effective means of fighting against any form of pressure or censure aiming to stifle the right to information.”

In Algeria, journalists are thrown into prison like petty criminals by a State which in the meantime is concocting a law granting amnesty to the murderers of the 1990s. Communist senators Éliane Assassi and Nicole Borvo have appealed to Michel Barnier, the French minister for foreign affairs on two different occasions regarding these infringements to the freedom of the press. Mr Barnier has so far not deigned to respond.

Abla Chérif, Yasmine Ferroukhi, Youssef Rezzoug and Hassane Zerrouky have decided to appeal these wrongful condemnations. A protest march is being scheduled in Paris for the near future. Demonstrations in front of Algerian consulates may also be carried out in the provinces. As of today, the courts must examine the request to free Mohamed Benchicou, who has been again sentenced to five months’ incarceration.

These attacks have a name: State terrorism. The international response must be forceful so as to counter the desire to stifle Algerian democratic expression. Non-profit organisations and journalists may also take action in order to help free our colleagues, and specifically, Mohamed Benchicou. Let us together take a stand against silence and repression of the voice of democracy and freedom.


translated by Laura WHEELER


© l'Humanité du 20 avril 2005

Le Collectif pour la liberté de la presse en Algérie

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