Over the past few years, Algeria has seen a steady decline in press freedom. Following the mass protests of 2019 which led to the overthrow of the then president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Algerians were hopeful of a new dawn in the country’s politics and society. What transpired couldn’t have been farther from their hopes. The governments formed after April 2019 comprised those who were part of the previous regime and were blamed by Algerians for many of the flawed policies of the previous government.
The new regimes also cracked down on criticism and dissent. This included arrests of the Hirak protesters, as well as relentless repression of journalists, especially those critical of the government. Those journalists who did not toe the line faced arrests and detentions, as well as lengthy trials. Many of them were also sentenced to terms in prison. Journalists were forced to shut down their independent news organizations due to financial constraints as a result of the government’s persecution, while others ended up tangled up in prolonged judicial battles. Algeria’s rank in the World Press Freedom rankings published annually by Reporters Without Borders has also slipped to 146 out of 180 countries, down 27 places since 2015. Some of the most prominent, well-known journalists persecuted in the last few years include Rabah Kareche, Khaled Drareni, Abdelkarim Zeghileche and Belkacem Djir, among several others.
Kareche, a journalist with Liberte Daily, was arrested on April 19 this year and kept in pre-trial detention for several months before he was convicted and sentenced to one year in prison with four months suspended along with a fine of 20,000 Algerian Dinars. Charges against him included “spreading false news harmful to the public order,” “using media to undermine national security and unity,” and “using an electronic account to disseminate information prone to causing segregation and hatred in society.” These charges were slapped against him just days after he covered protests by the marginalized Berber Tuareg tribal community in southern Algeria. His detention and trial were denounced by press freedom groups and human rights organizations as “another blow to freedom of the press in Algeria” and his sentence was called “unjustified.”
Khaled Drareni is a well-known journalist and supporter of the Hirak movement who had criticized the government’s actions and expressed concerns about the country’s political situation. He was arrested in March 2020 and kept in illegal pre-trial detention. He was later convicted of charges, including “inciting an unarmed gathering” and “endangering national unity” for posts he made on social media encouraging Hirak protesters to continue till their demands are met and for covering the demonstrations. He was at first sentenced to a prison term of three years in August that year. It was reduced to two years following an appeal, and soon after, a judge overturned his conviction and ordered a retrial in his case. The persecution of Drareni sparked widespread protests among the journalistic community in not only Algeria, but also neighboring Tunisia and in France. Many journalists across the world staged protests demanding his release.
A well-known radio host and head of the online radio channel, Radio Sarbacane, Zeghileche was arrested in June 2020 and charged with ““undermining national unity” and “subverting the personality of the President of the Republic” for speaking in support of the Hirak protests, as well as giving Hirak leaders and supporters a platform on his channel. Besides being arrested and prosecuted, his offices and radio station were also ransacked. After a trial in which the prosecution asked the court for a three-year sentence, he was eventually handed a two-year prison sentence in August 2020, which was reduced further to one year with six months already suspended. Notably, Zeghileche was also hounded by the previous Bouteflika regime for highlighting critical national issues and exposing government corruption and misgovernance over the years.
A television host working with the private channel, Echourouk News, Djir faced vague charges including “blackmail”, “using a false identity” and “undermining the morale of the army troops”. He was arrested in July 2019 and held in pre-trial detention for a prolonged period while awaiting trial. He was sentenced to three years in prison in June 2020. In September that year, a court acquitted Djir on all charges and released him.