Algerians’ speech freedoms strained by media laws passed under COVID-19 pretext

Screenshot from France24 YouTube channel showing images of Hirak demonstrations in Algeria.

Algeria has been in turmoil since early 2019. A popular anti-government street protest movement, called Hirak, gathered massive support across different ethnic and social segments of the society and is still ongoing. To this, the government has responded with laws and measures that limit freedom of expression, and has often justified that by the need to fight the pandemic.

The Hirak movement started on February 2019, a few days after president Abdelaziz Boutefikla, in power since 1999, announced he would run for a fifth mandate. The people of Algeria reacted with the largest peaceful street demonstrations since the end of the Algerian Civil War in 2002. Eventually, Boutefikla conceded defeat and resigned on April 2, 2019. 

Yet, his resignation did not bring changes expected by a majority of Algerians. They therefore continued to protest peacefully every single Friday across the country to press for significant political changes and an end to large-scale corruption. 

As this twitter account that monitors the Hirak movement explains, the issue at play is the mindset of the government which is perceived as using various arguments, including the pandemic, to justify its grip over society:

The authorities did eventually respond to the movement by holding presidential elections in December 2020, which were won by Abdelmajid Tebboune. Yet, the vote was largely boycotted, reflecting little confidence within significant parts of the population in his candidacy as many Algerians did not see him as much different from his predecessors.

Indeed, while Tebboune had initially expressed support to the Hirak movement, he eventually changed his views and supported the passing of legislation restricting digital freedom of expression in Algeria. And so, protests continued. 

First changes in legislation during the pandemic

The first significant change happened in April 2020. The Algerian parliament and senate voted amendments to the Penal Code which introduced heavier sentences in the context of peculiar situations, including times of pandemic. Village de la justice [Justice Village], a online publication established by legal experts, explains this in its article

Le nouveau Code pénal prévoit ainsi une peine d’un à trois ans de prison, et une amende pouvant aller jusqu’à 300 000 dinars algériens (1900 euros) à l’encontre de « toute personne jugée coupable de propagation de fausses informations » Les peines peuvent être plus lourdes, de trois à cinq ans de prison « si ces actes sont commis durant les périodes de confinement sanitaire ou d’une catastrophe naturelle, biologique ou technologique ou de toute autre catastrophe.

The new Penal Code includes sentences of one to three years in prison, and a fine of up to 300,000 Algerian dinars [US$ 2 261] against “anyone found guilty of spreading false information”. The penalties can be heavier, from three to five years in prison “if these acts are committed during periods of sanitary confinement or of a natural, biological or technological disaster or any other disaster”.

More coercive legislation under the new presidency 

In Algeria, state media comes under strict control and censorship, delivering information that has to be first approved by the authorities. In that context, independent platforms such as private media, social media, satellite television and other overseas media represent the main alternative source of information. 

Interviewed on the phone by GV, El Kadi Ihsane, who owns several independent media outlets, explains the overall context:

Le système a depuis huit ans extrêmement réglementé les moyens de financements des médias, au point de les mettre en péril. Aujourd’hui, nous traversons une période critique, il n’y a aucun modèle qui est capable de fournir une information de qualité par manque de moyen car ces restrictions ne permettent pas de garantir un modèle économique viable et de se projeter, on est dans une précarité totale. 

The system has for eight years now severely regulated the means of financing media, to the point of endangering it. Today, we are going through a critical period, there is no model that is capable of providing quality information for lack of means because these restrictions do not make it possible to guarantee a viable economic model and to envision the future, we are in a state of total precariousness. 

Subsequently, internet penetration surged by 12 percent between 2019 and 2020, reaching over 52 percent of the population. 

Following the April 2020 amendments to the penal code, Tebboune's government adopted in December 2020 its first ever decree governing electronic media. The decree presents new restrictions for operating digital media in Algeria and reflects the mindset of the government as explained in this article by the Minister of Communication: 

Ce décret, premier du genre en Algérie, constitue l'une des priorités du plan d’action du secteur dans le cadre de l'intérêt accordé par le Président de la République à la généralisation du numérique et au contrôle de la presse électronique qui renferme des avantages et des inconvénients principalement liés à la mauvaise utilisation de ce type de médias modernes pour porter atteinte aux individus et aux institutions en diffusant des rumeurs, des fake news et des  vidéos truquées

This decree, the first of its kind in Algeria, constitutes one of the priorities of the action plan of the sector as the result of the attention paid by the President of the Republic to the overall digitalization and the control of online media. Such media has advantages and disadvantages, the latter happening when media is used to harm individuals and institutions by spreading rumors, fake news and faked videos.

Among the changes brought by this decree, Algerian media outlets are for example required to register on a .dz internet domain, in a clear attempt to control their content given strict censorship laws in Algeria. Indeed, most, if not all, opposition sites are registered outside of Algeria to preserve the safety of their contributorswho often use nicknames to protect themselves and their families from state harassment. 

A heavy price paid by journalists and bloggers 

While Algerian authorities released a number of political prisoners on February 18, 2021 in an effort to prevent further massive demonstrations to mark the second anniversary of the Hirak movement, the most outspoken voices defending and embodying freedom of expression have all together paid a heavy price for daring to claim their rights. 

An example of such is Walid Kechida, creator of Facebook page called “Hirak Memes” with almost 15,000 members, in which he displays humorous images criticizing the government and supporting the Hirak movement. He was arrested on April 27, 2020 on charges of “offending the President”, a crime that is mentioned in the April amendments of the Penal Code in the context of online publications. He was eventually released on January 31, 2021, after nine months in prison.

Similarly, Khaled Drareni, one of the most outspoken journalists during the Hirak movement , was released on February 19, having spent almost one year in prison for allegedly “inciting unarmed gatherings”.

As, Amira D., a student and activist, who did not want to give her full name, told GV:

Ces deux jeunes qui ont réussi à mettre à genoux un système juste avec un stylos et un téléphone, sont le visage de la jeunesse algérienne, ils nous ressemblent, dans la diversité qu’est notre jeunesse. Le système à travers la justice veut nous faire peur.

Those two young men managed to bring a system to its knees simply with a pen and a phone, and represent the face of the Algerian youth, they look like us in the diversity that is embodied by our youth. The system wants to scare us by using the legal system.

This article is part of a series of posts examining interference with digital rights under lockdowns and beyond during the COVID-19 pandemic in nine African countries: Uganda, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Algeria, Nigeria, Namibia, Tunisia, Tanzania, and Ethiopia. The project is funded by the Africa Digital Rights Fund of The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA).

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