Potential peace between Bouteflika and the independent Algerian media?

Algerian President Abdul Aziz Bouteflika shocked the Algerian media during his presidential oath on April 19th in Algiers after winning this years presidential election. He promised the press more independence and invited the Algerian press corps to help him fight corruption and bribery. Is he for real?
Newly re-elected Algerian president, Abdul Aziz Bouteflika during his April 19 inaugural address.

ALGIERS, April 23, 2009 (MENASSAT) - In the presence of Algerian dignitaries, past and present, newly elected Algerian president Abdul Aziz Bouteflika took the oath of office on April 19 promising in a speech to enhance the independence of the media, while calling on the country's reporter corps to help him fight corruption and bribery.

It's a move that has surprised critics of the regime.

Bouteflika said in his speech he would respect the “troubled profession”  and encourage a more open press environment as a means of fostering democracy in Algeria.

But the president's intolerance of the independent press has been well documented. During his second presidential term, he amended article 144 of the 2001 Penal Code, which made criticism of the president illegal.

According to rights groups, independent Algerian newspapers and reporters have been afraid to speak out against the regime for fear of heavy fines or possible jail time.

Some have even charged the independent press of becoming Bouteflika's mouthpiece for the 2009 elections campaign, in part to counter the potential rise of Islamist parties in Algerian politics.

Still, independent journalists like Fatima al-Zahra said the Presidential speech was in the least “an admission that press freedoms in Algeria have been abused.”

At the same time, she says, “Bouteflika's speech contradicts his previous statements and actions. As journalists we are more afraid than ever to investigate corruption or other sensitive issues. How can he ask a journalist to fight corruption in Algeria when article 144 of the penal code stands as an obstacle to our work?”

Another journalist who spoke on condition of anonymity said that Bouteflika’s demand to investigate corruption was unusual.

“How can the media work as a judge or a security system with the current press laws?” adding, “I just want the president to keep his promises. We need to restructure the media sector in general and enact new laws. How can I do my job otherwise?”

The Penal Code: a black point

Indeed, the main point of contention for independent press in Algeria is the criminalization of their profession with laws like article 144 of the penal code.

Despite the fact that the number of private newspapers in Algeria have actually increased in frequency under the president's previous two-terms, additional press laws have severely restricted the audiovisual sector, and severely hampered any serious investigative reporting.

According the Algerian Journalists’ Syndicate, any reforms have to start with amending the penal code, redefining the government's methods of dealing with the press other than through legal intimidation.

Still, Bouteflika's inaugural address signaled a very public outing of the issue.

Academic observers have gone on record in the national press as saying that there is a greater need for professionalism and proper training in the reporter ranks. But journalists like Al-Zahra say that the government must first level the playing field for reporters doing work on sensitive issues,

Independent journalists have been very public about the favoritism for pro-regime outlets, who are often given more access to government information, and for many, the question being raised is whether the government is willing to create a comprehensive media law that clearly states the rights of journalists working in Algeria?

Government sources contend those laws already exist, albeit with some gaps, according to Algeria's Communications Minister Boudjema Haichour.

To address these “gaps,” Algeria's communications ministry met last year with media representatives to begin discussing media laws that many in the industry said were clearly made to be abused by Bouteflika's administration.

Defamation laws have been particularly harsh. Mohamad bin Shiko, manager of the French-speaking newspaper LeMatin, was arrested in 2004 after publishing a biography of Boutefliqa called “Boutefliqa, a deceptive Algerian.

Le Matin was subsequently banned for a period and Bin Shiko was sentenced to two years in jail. He was released in 2006, when a presidential pardon was issued to release 200 journalists convicted for defamation offenses against Bouteflika's administration.

Of course, hanging over the entire legal process is the fact that Algeria has been under a “state of emergency” since 1992, imposing extra sets of legal provisions to deal with anyone seen as a threat to the “general order” of the state.

Rights groups like the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) have accused Bouteflika's regime of using the emergency laws to wield power over free expression in Algeria with impunity.

In addition to jail time for those insulting the president, anyone seen to be insulting Islam in the press, through cartoons or speeches, or those insulting the armed forces can be jailed for up to five years.

According to the amended version of Article 144 of the penal code, “insulting” a judge or a juror in a public place is punishable of up to two years in jail.

The media and the new media law

Bouteflika's conciliatory tone towards the media also occurs against the backdrop of political changes that affected the media landscape during the 10-year Algerian Civil War that killed more than 160,000 people between 1992 and 2002.

An increasingly diverse political scene in Algeria in the 1990s also saw an increase in number Algeria's independent newspapers. 17 new newspapers appeared in the 1990s, increasing to 40 dailies from 2002 to the present.

As well, media activists have worked hard to assure the creation of the only union meant to protect journalists' rights - the National Syndicate for Journalists.

In line with Bouteflika's conciliatory remarks is the fact that the state helped to establish a council for press ethics in Algeria two years ago. Still, neither of these two bodies have proved powerful enough to stand up against the media laws in place, and neither have been able to agree over a common platform for the concerns of Algeria's press corps.

During their regional meeting in January 2007, the International Federation for Journalists and National Syndicate demanded the Algerian government abolish the defamation laws - proposing the government scrap article 144.

Although the communications ministry has said it is studying the proposal, two-years on, nothing has been done, and critics of Bouteflika's regime say that until such laws are addressed, the president's statements are simply a political ploy.