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CAPSULE REPORT: Press freedom still fragile; IFJ urges decriminalisation of press offences, release from prison of media employees

(IFJ/IFEX) - The following is an excerpt from a 29 May 2008 IFJ report:

Breaking the Chains: Press Freedom Campaign

Algeria

In a country emerging from a difficult period of extremist violence, in which the media were prominent among the victims, the press is often seen as free, but a series of measures in recent years reveal how fragile is this freedom. In the framework of the national peace and reconciliation charter, a February 27th 2006 decree was enacted providing for up to five-year prison terms and fines for those who speak or write to "exploit the wounds of the national tragedy, tarnish the country's international image or its officials' reputation". The wording maintains the danger of legal abuse first established in 2001, when the Penal Code (1990 law) was amended to strengthen sentences of so-called press offences.

The law provides for jail terms for offending religion through writing, cartoons, or speech, (up to five years jail terms and ?1,300 fine - Art 144 bis2); for offending the parliament, officials, judiciary authorities or armed forces (up to two years jail sentences and ?6,500 - art 144). Article 144bis provides for up to one year jail sentence and ?3,000 fine, for anyone who offends the President of the Republic . . . " In case of repetition of the offence the sentence is doubled. Art. 144 bis1 exposes the editor and author of the offence to up to one year imprisonment terms and ?3,000 fine, and the publication up to ?30,000 fine. In case of repetition of the offence, the sentence is doubled.

The state of emergency decree allows legal action against what is considered a threat to the state or public order. Persons charged with acts against the security of the state may be held in pre-trial detention for up to 20 months, according to the Code of Penal Procedure. Although defined as an exceptional measure by Article 123 of the Penal Procedure Code, pre-trial detention is often used.

In June 2006 Mohammed Benchicou, director of former daily "Le Matin" was released after serving a full two year sentence. On 5 July, a presidential amnesty was granted to 200 journalists convicted of defamation, leaving journalists involved in ongoing prosecutions ineligible for pardon; 17 journalists were given jail sentences during the year.

In January 2007, during a regional meeting of IFJ affiliates in the Arab world, the IFJ and the National Syndicate of Journalists (SNJ) called on the government to fully decriminalise defamation by erasing article 144 of the penal code. The Algerian Minister for Information offered to consider the issue. However, journalists were charged throughout the year, under the penal code for press offences. During an IFJ mission in February 2008, organised to support the work and strengthen the organisation of its affiliate, the Syndicat National des Journalistes (SNJ), the Ministry of Communication reaffirmed the government's willingness to amend the penal code articles providing for journalists' imprisonment for press offenses. In April 2008, a decree defining labour relations between journalists and media employers was adopted, providing Algerian journalists from private and public sectors with a legal framework defining their profession and guaranteeing their basic rights.

Since the reopening of its solidarity center in 2004, the IFJ and the SNJ have been urging authorities to decriminalise press offences, ensure fair trials for media and withdraw prison sentences against journalists. That work continues.

For further information on pending Algerian cases, see: http://mena.ifj.org/assets/docs/189/082/fa12dbd-9d11c52.pdf

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