A critical moment for press freedom in Algeria

Last March, Khaled Drareni, a prominent journalist in Algeria, was arrested. Since the start of concerted anti-government protests a year before, officials had repeatedly tried to intimidate Drareni out of covering them; on one occasion, they even tried to bribe him by offering him a plum job as head of state radio, but he stood firm. Drareni was charged with endangering national unity and security; in August, he was handed a three-year prison sentence that was later reduced to two years on appeal. Drareni founded the Casbah Tribune, an influential Algerian news site, and has also worked for French media, as a correspondent for TV5 Monde and for Reporters Without Borders. He quickly became an international symbol in the fight for press freedom: French TV anchors lobbied for his release outside the Algerian embassy in Paris; RSF stuck his face on a huge poster overlooking a highway in the city. He told me yesterday that he never expected or sought such a status. “I just wanted to fight for a free and independent press,” he said. “Informing Algerians was my only goal.”

I was able to speak with Drareni because, five days ago, he was released. A throng of activists, journalists, and well-wishers gathered outside the prison where Drareni was being held; finally, he appeared, wearing a medical mask and flashing a victorious “V” sign with his fingers. Thirty or so activists, many of whom had been locked up due to their social-media posts, were freed at the same time—part of a wave of pardons granted by Abdelmadjid Tebboune, Algeria’s president, the night before. (Drareni, who wasn’t legally eligible to be pardoned, was freed under a separate mechanism.) Tebboune had only just returned to Algeria from Germany, where he received two lengthy spells of treatment after contracting COVID-19 in the fall. As he announced the pardons, Tebboune also dissolved the lower house of Algeria’s Parliament, triggering legislative elections that are expected sometime in the coming months, and set in motion a reshuffle of his government—though the justice and communications ministers, who have played key roles in the suppression of protest and press freedoms, will stay in post.

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The announcements came days before the second anniversary of the start of the protests that came to be known as “the Hirak.” (“Hirak” means “movement.”) The demonstrations, which began in the town of Kherrata and spread across the country, channeled popular opposition to the country’s ruling class, and in particular to the decision of Abdelaziz Bouteflika—who had, at that point, been president for nearly twenty years—to seek a fifth term. (Bouteflika, who was then eighty-two, had rarely appeared in public since having a stroke in 2013; his brother was widely believed to be controlling the government in his stead.) Soon after the protests began, Bouteflika, who had already reversed his decision to run for reelection, resigned as military leaders turned on him, but true democratization did not follow, and protests continued every week. In December 2019, there was an election that Tebboune—who had close links both to the ancien régime and to the military—won. Many Algerians viewed the vote as a sham and boycotted it; officials pegged turnout at 41 percent, and called that figure “satisfactory.” Tebboune’s government continued to crack down on protesters, who continued to defy the official repression. In the end, the Hirak was suspended not by the state, but by the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

Throughout this period, press freedom suffered; between 2018 and 2020, Algeria, which never scored highly on Reporters Without Borders’s press-freedom index, fell ten places to 146th (out of one hundred and eighty countries and territories in total). Before they arrested Drareni, officials detained other reporters including Sofiane Merakchi, a correspondent and producer for several foreign networks who was later convicted of import and customs crimes. In September 2019, Al Araby TV was ordered off the air after covering a protest that featured anti-military placards; in the run-up to Tebboune’s election, Le Temps d’Algérie, a pro-government daily, suspended four staffers, one of whom had spoken out against the paper’s “shameful editorial line” encouraging “voting en masse.” After the pandemic hit, lawmakers passed a bill criminalizing “fake news,” the government blocked numerous independent news sites, and journalists found themselves targeted by intensifying campaigns of abuse on social media. Last summer, Moncef Aït Kaci and Ramdane Rahmouni, who worked for France 24, were detained and accused of lacking proper accreditations. In December, as speculation about Tebboune’s illness swirled within Algeria, officials blocked three more news sites, including Drareni’s Casbah Tribune.

Algeria is not an outlier within its region: as I reported recently, press freedom has, broadly, been in retreat across the Middle East and North Africa in the decade since the Arab Spring protests led—with varying degrees of brevity in different countries—to a flowering of hope. The protests in Algeria, while distinct from this broader context in many important ways, show that repression of speech is a universal tactic in the face of concerted demands for true democracy.

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They also show, however, how many people are unwilling to abandon hope. In recent days, thousands of Algerians have taken to the streets again to mark the second anniversary of the Hirak; yesterday, dozens of students and activists in Algiers, the capital, defied a heavy-handed police presence to march through the city, chanting, among other things, in support of a free press and an independent judiciary. Drareni, for his part, has been spending time connecting with friends and family and thanking his supporters. He faces another milestone in his case tomorrow, when the Supreme Court will consider his appeal, but he intends to get back to work soon. Journalism “is the only job I know,” he told me, and “I’ll keep doing it until my last breath.” He hopes, in the meantime, that the circumstances of his imprisonment and release will serve to bolster press freedom. “I hope I’m the last Algerian journalist to be imprisoned,” he said.

Below, more on press freedom in Algeria and around the world:

  • Algeria: Reporters Without Borders hailed Drareni’s release; in a statement, Christophe Deloire, the group’s secretary general, said, “We are extremely happy, despite the bitter aftertaste of eleven months of injustice. Journalistic independence and pluralism are the sine qua non for positive transformation in Algeria. The pardons granted by President Tebboune are undeniably a move in the right direction after some backward steps. Khaled Drareni will be able to resume working for reliable and independent journalism.”
  • Yemen: Concern is growing as to the welfare of Adel al-Hasani, a journalist in Yemen who worked as a reporter and fixer for outlets including the BBC and CNN, and was arrested in September. Human Rights Watch said this week that the Southern Transitional Council, a separatist group backed by the United Arab Emirates that is holding al-Hasani prisoner, has tortured him, including by chaining and beating him. (For more on press freedom and Yemen’s war, read Zainab Sultan’s 2019 article for CJR.)
  • Malta: Yesterday, Vince Muscat—a Maltese man who was charged with helping to carry out the murder of the investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, in 2017—pleaded guilty; he has been sentenced to fifteen years, rather than life, in prison in exchange for supplying information about the case. After Muscat entered his plea, police arrested three more suspects; the Times of Malta called the developments “a momentous turning point” in the investigation into the killing. (For many more details about the case, Ben Taub’s recent deep dive, for the New Yorker, is worth a read.)
  • The US, Russia, and Saudi Arabia: According to Politico’s Natasha Bertrand, the Biden administration is preparing to hit Russia with sanctions and other penalties in a bid to hold its leaders accountable both for recent hacks of US infrastructure, and for the poisoning of the opposition leader and sometime journalist Alexei Navalny. Meanwhile, Hans Nichols, of Axios, reports that Biden will today call King Salman, of Saudi Arabia, as US officials prepare to publicly release an intelligence report linking the king’s heir apparent, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to the murder, in 2018, of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Per Nichols, we can expect to see the report tomorrow.


Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, officials who were (or should have been) responsible for securing the Capitol on January 6 testified in the Senate; today, a House committee will convene a hearing on the role of traditional media in spreading Trump’s election lies and disinformation, with expert witnesses including the news anchor Soledad O’Brien and Emily Bell, of Tow Center and CJR fame. Ahead of time, Reps. Anna Eshoo and Jerry McNerney, two Democrats from California, wrote cable-TV providers, including Comcast and AT&T, to ask why they haven’t done more to combat misinformation on right-wing channels that they carry. In other big-lie news, ABC was criticized, on Sunday, for giving Republican Rep. Steve Scalise a platform to cast doubt on Biden’s legitimacy. The New Republic’s Alex Shephard concludes that “the Sunday shows are hopelessly broken.”
  • The Senate is also, finally, accelerating hearings for Biden’s nominees. Yesterday, Deb Haaland—who will be the first Native American cabinet member if she is confirmed as interior secretary—was among those to appear; per the AP, tribal communities held virtual parties to watch. If Haaland’s confirmation is uncertain, that of Neera Tanden, Biden’s pick to lead the Office of Management and Budget, seems all but dead following bipartisan criticism of her tweets. Many on the left dislike Tanden—citing, among other things, her treatment of progressive writers—but one such critic, David Klion, argues, for The Nation, that Tanden’s ill-tempered posting should not be “a barrier to public service.”
  • Yesterday, the golfer Tiger Woods was involved in a serious car crash; he has had leg surgery, but his injuries are not life-threatening. CNN’s Oliver Darcy spoke with Richard Winton, who broke key details of the story for the LA Times—“a case study,” Darcy writes, “in how plugged in local reporters are to their communities.” Winton praised local officials for their clear communication. (Others noted that they were more transparent about the crash than federal officials were about the insurrection on January 6.)
  • On Monday, a federal judge in Minnesota ruled that Linda Tirado—a freelance journalist who was blinded after police hit her with a rubber bullet while she was covering a protest last summer—may proceed with a lawsuit she filed against the city of Minneapolis and Bob Kroll, then-leader of the city’s police union. The judge wrote that injuries to Tirado and other reporters “plausibly suggest an unconstitutional custom” of police “targeting journalists for unlawful reprisals.” Josh Verges has more for the Pioneer Press.
  • Cameron Barr, a managing editor at the Washington Post, will stand in as executive editor from the end of February while bosses search for a permanent replacement for Marty Baron, who is retiring. In other media-jobs news, Rob Barrett, formerly of Hearst, is joining Maven Media, which publishes Sports Illustrated, as president of media. And NPR’s Brakkton Booker is joining Politico; he will serve as a political correspondent and also write “The Recast,” a new newsletter covering “race, power, politics and policy.”
  • Al Jazeera is launching Rightly, a digital platform aimed, per Politico, at “center-right folks who feel left out of mainstream media.” Scott Norvell, who worked for years at Fox News, will be editor in chief, and Stephen Kent, who currently hosts a podcast about “Star Wars, politics, and more,” will host an opinion show that will debut tomorrow. Per The Guardian, some Al Jazeera staffers are dismayed about the launch.
  • HuffPost staffers in Canada are unionizing with CWA Canada, a week after BuzzFeed finalized its acquisition of their parent newsroom. “We’re conscious of the fact that while our colleagues at HuffPost US, BuzzFeed Canada, and BuzzFeed US are all unionized, our newsrooms are not,” organizers said. “We’ve seen the way our colleagues’ union status has protected the conditions they fought for throughout the sale of HuffPost.”
  • And France Inter’s Morgane Tual assessed the minimalist media strategy of Daft Punk, after the duo announced its breakup. The face Daft Punk presented to the world—or didn’t, given its use of robot helmets—was always “hyper-controlled and founded on mystery,” Tual notes. With its last studio album, in 2013, Daft Punk “did the minimum, let the fans do the work, and it was a hit.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.