Repressions grow in Algeria, is freedom of speech in danger?

The government, say its opponents, is even banning pro-Gaza protests, worried the spirit of the Hirak will rise again.

Photo of smiling Mustapha with 'Journalism is not a crime' at the bottom
Photo proclaiming that 'Journalism is not a crime' shared by the campaign to free Mustapha on social media [Freedom for Mustapha Bendjama campaign via Facebook]

Since February 2019, Mustapha Bendjama, the editor of the daily newspaper Le Provincial, has been held by police forces and interrogated at least 35 times.

In his hometown of Annaba in eastern Algeria, he has been under constant pressure from authorities due to what his allies say are his consistent challenges to government policies.

In February, he was arrested at the newspaper’s headquarters in Annaba in connection with the escape of a noted dissident to France through Annaba and Tunisia, despite a ban on them leaving the country.

Wider context

Bendjama’s case is far from unique. Each day, the National Committee for the Liberation of Detainees (CNLD) – created in 2019 to monitor politically motivated detentions – announces new arrests, trials, releases and judicial procedures.

There are so many that some prisoners end up lost within the system while others are so afraid that they and their families refuse to publicise their cases for fear of reprisals.

According to human rights activist Zaki Hannache, there are currently 228 prisoners of conscience in Algeria, most of whom have been charged with “terrorism”.

At least 1,200 people have been jailed since 2019 in connection with participation in the Hirak, Algeria’s nationwide pro-democracy protest movement, or because of criticism posted online, he said.

Cartoon of Bendjama with barbed wire looping around him
A cartoon calling for releasing Mustapha [Freedom for Mustapha Bendjama via Facebook]

Many have been brought in for regular questioning and dozens have been repeatedly imprisoned.

Countrywide, local media also have experienced intense repression, with 17 journalists sent to prison, including the editor of Radio M and Maghreb Emergent, Ihsane El Kadi, who is currently behind bars.

Thwarted justice

After 10 days in custody, during which he said he had been physically mistreated under interrogation, Bendjama was charged in two separate cases.

In one, he was charged – along with Algerian researcher Raouf Farrah – with receiving foreign funding to commit acts against public order, as well as sharing classified information, and sentenced in August to two years in prison.

In November, he was given a six-month sentence in another case for “participating in illegal emigration” for allegedly contributing to the escape of opposition figure Dr Amira Bouraoui, who had been banned from leaving Algeria while waiting for her appeal against numerous convictions.

Both Bendjama and Farrah had their initial sentence reduced, and Farrah was released.

During the first trial, a member of his defence team, Zakaria Benlahrech, pointed out that the “sharing classified information” charge had come very close to the investigation of Bouraoui’s departure, suggesting that the true cause for the official harassment of Bendjama may lie elsewhere.

“There is a woman who left the country illegally,”  Benlahrech told the court, “They told themselves: Who is in Annaba? There is Mustapha Bendjama who does not want to fall into line.”

Currently in detention at the Boussouf prison in Constantine, Bendjama started a hunger strike on October 3.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Benlahrech confirmed that an appeal had been lodged.

“We hope that the court of appeal will acquit him since he has nothing to do with these charges. He is a young journalist who is independent and very professional. He loves his country and his profession. His place is not in prison,” he said.

In February 2019, hundreds of thousands of Algerians came out for weekly demonstrations nationwide, first to prevent long-term president, the publicly absent and unfit Abdelaziz Bouteflika, from standing for a fifth term, and later to demand greater transparency among the country’s political elite, many of whom they wanted to be held accountable for past rights abuses.

However, the protest movement, the largest since Algeria’s independence, vanished from the streets following the onset of the coronavirus pandemic two years later, with few of the changes activists hoped for having been achieved.

Amira Bouraoui in the middle of a media scrum as she exits the prison
Amira Bouraoui, one of the most prominent if not the best-known figure of the Hirak, upon her release from prison on July 2, 2020, outside the Kolea Prison near the city of Tipasa, west of Algiers [Ryad Kramdi/AFP]

With streets empty, a government crackdown on past dissent followed. Several organisations that supported the Hirak, such as the Youth Action Rally (RAJ), the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH) and two opposition parties, the Socialist Workers’ Party (PST) and the Democratic and Social Movement (MDS), were banned by court decisions. Unsurprisingly, activists from these groups were targeted when they refused to step back.

“The repression affected more than 10 PST executives and activists,” Mahmoud Rechidi, the secretary-general of the PST told Al Jazeera. “It reminds us of the single-party era before October 1988,”

Since 2019, at least seven LAADH members have been incarcerated, including Ahmed Manseri, an experienced activist and director of the organisation’s bureau in Tiaret, in the west of the country.

Since the Hirak, Manseri has been summoned and detained by security forces on at least 20 occasions, as well as being charged with “praising terrorism”.

On October 8, 2023, after he had been repeatedly prosecuted, Manseri was apprehended along with his wife, who was later released, while their home was searched by police.

Two days later, his previous sentence of a year in prison was confirmed by the Algiers court.

young Algerian women wrapped in Algerian flags pose next to street art
Young Algerian women pose next to street art supporting the protest movement in Algiers, Algeria. The writing in Arabic reads ‘The people are the authority’, on April 10, 2019 [Mosa’ab Elshamy/AP Photo]

According to a statement released on the CNLD’s Facebook page, Manseri stated in late October that “his arrest was predictable due to the deterioration of freedoms, freedom of opinion and expression, and human rights” in Algeria.

Along with Manseri, hundreds of other protesters and activists have been placed under judicial control, meaning they have to regularly sign in at the court, and have their activities, movements and daily encounters monitored. In many cases, they are forbidden to leave the country.

For now, at least, it appears as if Algeria’s social movements, including those in the south, have been silenced.

According to the editor of Al Hogra news website, Merzoug Touati, Algeria’s ongoing campaign of repression suggests that, though the Hirak may have receded, the fear of its return persists.

Touati himself has been prosecuted in 10 cases and has served three sentences in prison.

“The Algerian people broke down the wall of fear…The regime has more or less succeeded in rebuilding it,” Touati said.

“However, the spirit of the Hirak remains despite the repression and if [the regime] lets go of the pressure, it could come back.

“An illustration is the fact that Algerians have been even forbidden to demonstrate in support of Gaza because the regime knows the crowds will shout the Hirak’s slogans again.”

Source: Al Jazeera