ALGERIA: Amend media law, end imprisonment of journalists



 
In response to President Bouteflika's call for improving media standards in the country, activists, politicians and government officials are asking the government to abolish Article 144-bis - which allows for journalists to be jailed - and impose fines instead.
 
By MEHDI IDAR
 
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Bouteflika's speech calling for a more open media, was met with groups demanding an end to the imprisonment law for journalists.

ALGIERS, May 19, 2009 (MENASSAT) -  In Abdul Aziz Bouteflika’s last speech, which coincided with World Press Day on May 3, the Algerian President stressed the importance of passing new laws that will improve media standards in the country. 

In response, a number of political parties, governmental officials and activists took the opportunity to demand the abolition of Article 144-bis - a clause that allows for the imprisonment of journalists.

The president's speech praised the Algerian media talents abroad and their ability to prove themselves in some of the biggest Arab and foreign media institutions. He also stated that media workers should continue to report on the social problems in the country, pointing out the favoritism, bureaucracy and corruption that takes place, and the role the local media plays in covering these issues.

Yet, media workers and rights-groups say they are still not protected under the law.

"It's time to protect journalists"

The ongoing discussion to change the law was reopened when Farouq Qostantini, head of the Consulting Committee to Protect Human Rights, asked that the government replace the imprisonment clause with fines.

“The aim is to encourage journalists to speak freely and participate in fighting corruption and bribes,” he said.

Secretary-General of the Labor Party, Louisa Hannoun, voiced similar demands at a press conference at the International Press Center in Algiers, saying that it is time to pass a law protecting journalists in Algeria.

She demanded the abolition of Article 144-bis, which provides for jail sentences of two to 12 months and fines ranging from 50,000 to 250,000 dinars(about 1000 to 5000 US dollars) for any "attack on the state president in terms containing insult or defamation, whether in writing, drawing or speech, irrespective of the medium used: sound, image, electronic or computer, or any other."

The prosecutor can also institute proceedings directly, without first filing a complaint. In cases of a second offence, jail sentences and fines are doubled. All these sanctions are also applicable to offences against "parliament or one of its two chambers, the ANP [the army], any public institution or any other constituent body."

The law, Hannoun said, incriminates the journalist, and along with the foreign financial support that is given to the local press, the media has become "deprived of the minimum level of freedom and independence.”

Algerian press still awaits freedom

Head of the Parliament, Abdul Aziz Ziyadi, also called for greater subjectivity in the media.

He said that the media should “work on spreading peace, compassion and cooperation, and fight all the problems threatening Algerian society.”

“The council celebrates this occasion (World Press Day) with you. Media institutions come from the people and can only work properly by building bridges of communication."

“Celebrating the Algerian media reminds us of the journalists who were killed by the crimes during the ‘90s crisis. The dreams of your fellow journalists were big, and their love for Algeria was even bigger. They left us, but their memory and the roles that they played never will.”

In response to the demands, Communication Minister Ezzedine Mayhoubi said that the government will review the articles concerning the media according to the electoral program of Bouteflika.

“After 20 years of having a diverse media in Algeria, we are being asked to change the law.”

In 1990, after President Benjedid reaffirmed a commitment to free expression, the Information Code, was enacted ending the government’s monopoly over the print media by permitting the publication of private newspapers and periodicals for the first time since 1964. The Algerian media witnessed a boom of hundreds of daily, weekly and periodical newspapers, however many have disappeared for different political and financial reasons.

Though many people point to Algeria as a leader in journalism in the region for the the past 19 years, change is still in the hands of the political leaders, who will ultimately make the decision of whether or not to drop Article 144-bis.