His Excellency Abdelaziz Bouteflika
C/o His Excellency Amine Kherbi
Embassy of Algeria
2118 Kalorama Rd., NW
Washington, DC 20008
Via facsimile: 202-667-2174
I am writing to strongly protest Your Excellency's recent promulgation of a draconian decree further restricting freedom of expression, including sharp new limits on discussion of the conflict that ravaged Algeria in the 1990s.
On February 27, Your Excellency had your Cabinet approve a decree which granted immunity from prosecution to the perpetrators of the violence that split the country for nearly a decade. The decree denies the victims' families and the media the right to further investigate the crimes and serious human rights abuses that took place, including the "disappearance" and killing of thousands of people, among them journalists.
This is a blatant attempt to prevent the legitimate researching and writing of history. We at CPJ, an organization that defends freedom of the press worldwide, are also alarmed that such a blanket ban would prevent investigation of the murders of dozens of journalists and the disappearance of at least two journalists during the war.
Djameleddine Fahassi and Aziz Bouabdellah, who disappeared in 1995 and 1997 respectively, are widely believed to have been abducted by members of the security forces. CPJ has closely followed developments in these two cases both before and after its fact-finding mission to Algeria in 1998. At least 58 other reporters and editors were killed by armed groups or unknown assailants between 1993 and 1996.
The decree threatens to punish by three to five years in prison and a heavy fine "anyone who by speech, writing, or any other act, uses or exploits the wounds of the National Tragedy to harm the institutions of the Democratic and Popular Republic of Algeria, to weaken the state, or to undermine the good reputation of its agents who honorably served it, or to tarnish the image of Algeria internationally."
The provisions of this decree are so sweeping that they amount to censorship and an attempt to control the writing of history.
This new legislation is all the more disturbing because it coincides with an escalation in the prosecution of individual journalists for their legitimate work. The confirmation on March 7 by an appeals court in Algiers of a six-month prison sentence handed down to Hakim Laalam of the daily Le Soir d'Algérie for allegedly defaming Your Excellency is one such case. Laalam was accused under a statute outlawing the causing of offense to the president because of an August 2003 column he wrote titled "The Spanking."
Kamel Bousaad, editor of the pro-Islamist weekly Errissala, was arrested on February 8 and Berkane Bouderbala, managing editor of the weekly Essafir, was arrested on February 11, after their newspapers published controversial Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. The editors face charges under Article 144 of the penal code for insulting the Prophet and denigrating Islam. If convicted they face imprisonment of up to five years and heavy fines. Also on February 11, cartoonist Ali Dilem was sentenced to one year in prison for alleged defamation in a series of cartoons which criticized your administration.
Although none of these journalists has yet served a prison term Bachir Larabi of the independent daily El-Khabar has been jailed. He was arrested on January 21 at his home in the southwestern town of El-Bayadh and jailed the following day after being convicted of defaming the mayor of Na'ama district and sentenced to one month in prison.
In addition, CPJ remains deeply concerned about the criminal conviction of Algerian journalist Mohamed Benchicou, publisher of the now-defunct Algiers daily Le Matin, who has been serving a two-year sentence since June 2004 on charges of violating currency laws. We believe the charges were brought in retaliation for Le Matin's criticism of Your Excellency and powerful ministers. Benchicou is appealing at least three other convictions on defamation charges brought by the authorities.
The use of spurious criminal defamation suits and the imprisonment of journalists for their work bring Algeria closer to those autocratic regimes around the world that persecute independent journalists and turn their back on international standards of press freedom and due process.
CPJ calls on Your Excellency to revoke the February 27 decree and ensure a swift end to this unacceptable cycle of imprisonment and harassment of Algerian journalists who have already paid a heavy price for doing their job during the past 15 years. We also urge prompt action to bring Algerian legislation into conformity with international standards of freedom of expression and to allow the establishment of independent investigations into the "disappearance" of Fahassi and Bouabdellah, and the deaths and murders of 58 journalists between 1993 and 1996.
Thank you for your attention to these urgent matters. We look forward to your reply.