22 April 2009

Press freedom abuses rise during elections

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Press freedom violations have increased under Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, many occurring during this month's electoral campaign, say the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Bouteflika was re-elected to a third term on 9 April.

On the eve of the elections, CPJ and RSF report that the Algerian government banned distribution of the current issues of three French weeklies - "L'Express", "Marianne" and "Le Journal du Dimanche" - that contained articles criticising Bouteflika's reign and his close ties to leading army generals.

Journalists have reported that they have waited months to get a visa to Algeria, or have had their applications ignored, says CPJ. Others who have shown up have been physically prevented from covering the presidential election, say CPJ and RSF. On election day, for example, Hicham Madraoui and Mahfoud Ait Bensaleh of the Moroccan weekly "Assahrae Al Ousbouiya" were arrested, taken to an Algiers police station and questioned for more than four hours.

"Their arrest does not bode well for President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's third term," RSF said. "The international media have been prevented from covering this election properly. We hope the media will be allowed to cover Bouteflika's next administration in a better manner."

Sihem Bensedrine, a Tunisian journalist and human rights defender, was not even allowed into the country. Bensedrine, who arrived at the Algiers airport on April 4 to take part in monitoring local media coverage of the presidential election with the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH), was forced by airport police to leave on the same plane that brought her from Paris. No explanation was provided.

According to LADDH, there has been a "total lack of critical debate" in the media on the presidential election and only favourable coverage in the state-owned media of Bouteflika over his five challengers.

CPJ says the rate of abuses began to increase in February 2006, after Bouteflika's administration issued a draconian decree restricting free expression and placing sharp limits on discussion of Algeria's civil war in the 1990s. For instance, investigations into the murder of dozens of journalists and the disappearances of at least two others have been prohibited.

"This decree has prompted greater self-censorship in the Algerian media, has served as a new prescription for the harassment and imprisonment of critical journalists, and has widened the gap between Algerian policies and international standards for free expression," said CPJ.

Both CPJ and RSF have written separately to Bouteflika calling on him to revoke the February 2006 decree, and to halt the imprisonment and harassment of Algerian journalists.

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