To the Editors:
Algeria remains the most dangerous country in the world for journalists. As many as 50,000 people have died since civil war broke out in 1991. Since 1993, the Committee to Protect Journalists has documented sixty deliberate assassinations of journalists in a concerted campaign by radical Islamist groups to eliminate intellectuals and professionals—the essential components of civil society. This startling number makes this the most lethal assassination campaign against the press CPJ has documented in the past ten years.
Members of the media are used as pawns between the warring factions. They are caught in the crossfire between Islamist militants, who proclaim that “those who fight with the pen shall die by the sword,” and a brutal regime which uses all means possible to control the flow of information and exploits those murders to bolster support for its own counterinsurgency movement. Journalists have no allies in Algeria.
One recent case highlights the despicable state of press freedoms in Algeria. On July 4, 1996, Chawki Amari, a cartoonist with the independent French-language daily La Tribune, was arrested in the early morning at his home in Algiers. The police charged that he had “desecrated a national emblem” by drawing a satiric cartoon of the Algerian flag. Under Algeria’s penal code, this is a crime warranting a five-to-ten-year prison sentence. His publisher and editor were also tried, and the publisher received a one-year suspended sentence. After being detained for over a month, Amari was given a three-year suspended prison sentence. Since then, the offices of La Tribune have been sealed twice, leading to a de facto suspension of the newspaper.
Unfortunately, Amari’s case is not exceptional. While terrorists use assassination as an easy way to get their names in the news, the Algerian government retaliates by suppressing coverage of Islamist activities in the media. Censorship, prosecution for civil disobedience, imprisonment, harassment, and suspension of publications are all tactics the government has used to suppress objective reporting. Journalists already operate under a constant threat of death from Islamist groups. To compound the extraordinary obstacles already facing the press in Algeria, the government not only offers inadequate protection to its targeted citizens but encourages the suspicions already held by Islamists that secular journalists are puppets of the state by monopolizing the distribution of information, closing Islamist publications, and censoring all security-related information.
Journalists who cooperate with the regime must censor themselves and agree to abide by the government’s reporting rules, thereby becoming propagandists for the army. Those who are sympathetic to the Islamists receive brutal treatment from the Algerian government, or quite simply “disappear.”
Only immediate and decisive measures can protect journalists and salvage what remains of press freedom in Algeria. The government must immediately lift press censorship, release all imprisoned journalists, and allow banned publications to reopen. Ultimately, only a negotiated settlement to the civil war will assure the safety of journalists. But these measures can help restore the status of journalists as civilian noncombatants and perhaps help end the killings.
Committe to Protect Journalists
New York City
The Committee to Protect Journalists is a non-partisan organization of journalists dedicated to upholding press freedom and journalists’ rights throughout the world.
October 3, 1996