June 24, 2021
WASHINGTON – Algeria’s decision to revoke the accreditation of France 24 over its coverage of long-running pro-democracy protests signals the pressure that media in the North African country work under, analysts say.
The move against the French state-owned news outlet earlier this month comes amid tensions between the government and press over coverage of the pro-democracy Hirak Movement. The announcement came the day after legislative elections in which 70% of the electorate did not vote, according to data from the Algerian electoral authority.
The Hirak Movement protests began in early 2019, forcing former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika to resign. But as protests calling for widespread reform continued, authorities cracked down on journalists who cover them or who criticize the government.
Media and human rights watchdogs say that journalists in Algeria frequently face harassment and arbitrary detention, and that access to several news websites has been blocked. Under a 2020 law, journalists risk up to five years in prison for undermining public order. A separate decree says news websites have to be based in the country and run by an Algerian national, Freedom House data shows.
Overall, the country’s press freedom record since 2018 has declined 10 places — falling to 146 out of 180 — on Reporters Without Borders (RSF) annual index.
In France 24’s case, Algeria’s Ministry of Communication said in a statement that its June 13 decision to revoke the accreditation was a response to the broadcaster’s “hostility” and “aggressiveness toward Algeria,” and added that the broadcaster had failed to “respect the rules of professional ethics, disinformation, and manipulation.”
The broadcaster had received a warning from the ministry in March related to its coverage of protests.
France 24 directed VOA to its statement shared with Agence France-Presse that read, “We cover Algerian news transparently, independently and honestly, as is the case with all countries we cover.”
As well as revoking a broadcaster’s credentials, Algeria this month detained two journalists — RSF correspondent Khaled Drareni and Maghred Emergent director Ihsane El-Kadi. Both have previously faced legal action over their reporting.
Drareni served almost a year in prison for “endangering national unity” and “inciting an unarmed gathering” while covering a protest. He was released on bail in February 2021.
The RSF correspondent says he thinks a meeting that he had with foreign journalists led to his arrest. Drareni told VOA that officials asked him “bizarre” questions about his work, life, and why he had met with foreign journalists who came to Algiers to cover the elections.
VOA attempted to seek comment from Algeria’s Ministry of Communications but received an automated email saying the mailbox is full. The country’s embassies in the U.S. and France did not respond to requests for comment.
Journalists who cover Algeria said that given the current climate for media in the country, the decision to revoke France 24’s accreditation was not surprising.
Adam Nossiter, the New York Times Kabul bureau chief who used to cover Algeria, said that the broadcaster being a French state-owned outlet adds another layer.
“They’re especially prickly toward the French. Their complicated colonial relationship with the French just also complicates whatever relations they have with French media,” Nossiter told VOA. “Critical coverage coming from French media is much more keenly felt in Algeria.”
Algeria was under French colonial rule until gaining independence in 1962 after a seven-year war, which remains a sensitive issue for both countries.
Mustapha Bendjama, editor-in-chief of Algerian opposition newspaper Le Provincial, said the recent incidents are indicative of declining media freedom across the country.
“The state does not tolerate that journalists and the media dare to have an editorial point of view that differs from the state’s version,” Bendjama said.
The journalist said he has also been arrested previously over coverage.
Journalists in Algeria, especially local media, face widespread harassment and the threat of arbitrary detention, says Justin Shilad, a senior Middle East and North Africa researcher at the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
“We’re seeing more and more journalists detained for longer periods of time and in greater numbers,” Shilad said. “At one point last month, authorities arrested at least 16 journalists who were covering the protests.”
The situation is leading to widespread self-censorship, said Akram Kharief, editor-in-chief for news website MENADEFENSE, which focuses on international defense and security.
Kharief said efforts to suppress the media include indirect pressure including financially via a loss in advertising revenue, and direct pressure, like revoking accreditation or arresting journalists.
“Since the beginning of this revolution in 2019, we have more and more pressure applied against the media,” Kharief said. “And we have a very strong decline in free speech in general.”
Foreign journalists in Algeria tend to have more leeway that their local counterparts, according to Nossiter.
“In the case of foreign media, if they’re really unhappy with you, they’ll just kick you out or revoke your accreditation,” Nossiter said. “They’re even harsher with local media. They throw them in jail.”
Drareni said that even if the treatment is different, the government’s objective is the same.
“In the same way that the government controls or tries to control the Algerian press, it also tries to control the foreign press,” Drareni said.
With limited coverage in state or official media of the protest movement and big issues including corruption and the economy, Algeria has seen a growth in independent outlets “specifically to fill the void,” said Shilad.
It would be incorrect to characterize the media as all being supportive of the protest movement, but Shilad said, “There is definitely an appetite in Algeria for critical reporting on corruption, the economy, and human rights, which are also issues that the Hirak protests have focused on.”
For journalists on the ground, there is determination to keep reporting.
“As long as there are online media and newspapers that continue to resist, in the face of censorship, in the face of pressure, in the face of threats, I am optimistic,” Drareni told VOA.