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Statement of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, as he concludes his visit to Algeria

ALGIERS, 17 April 2011 – From 10 to 17 April 2011, I carried out a visit to Algeria with the purpose of making a full assessment of the situation of freedom of opinion and expression in the country. I visited Algiers where I met with the Minister of Foreign Affairs; the Minister of Communication; the Minister of Posts, and Information and Communication Technologies; the Advisor to the President; senior officials from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Interior, Justice, Culture, and Education; the General Prosecutor; Members of the Council of the Nation (Senate) and of the National Popular Assembly; the Directors General of the Public Television and Radio; the President of the Council of the Regulatory Authority of the Post and Telecommunications; the Head of the National Agency Advertising for Publishing and Advertising (ANEP); and the President of the National Consultative Commission for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights. In Oran, I met with the officials from the Wilaya.

I also met with representatives of the United Nations Country Team, and diplomatic missions.

Finally, I met with journalists from State-sponsored and private newspapers; representatives of two journalist unions; staff members of the higher school of journalism; and members of non-governmental organizations working on civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.

I would like to start this press release by congratulating the Government of Algeria for having voluntarily invited me as Special Rapporteur to visit the country. I believe it is very symbolic when a State takes the initiative to invite a mandate-holder of the Human Rights Council. This should be held as a good practice.

I further thank the Government for having facilitated the meetings I had requested. I wish to state that I was also free to hold meetings with organisations of the civil society which were interested in sharing their views with me.

It is important to stress that this press statement, which contains my preliminary conclusions and recommendations at the end of my visit, is presented as a friend of Algeria, and as a contribution to the improvement of the respect for human rights and the promotion of democracy.

I believe this visit has been very timely given the growing demand for more openness and freedom of expression, as well as the expressed desire of the Government to embark in a new process of political reforms.

In this regard, I welcome the speech of the President of the Republic of Algeria made on 15 April 2011 announcing Constitutional reforms, some of which are directly linked to concerns expressed throughout this visit regarding freedom of opinion and expression.

In the drafting of the following conclusions and recommendations, I took due consideration of the recent history of the country in its struggle against terrorism. I myself come from a country that went through a 36-year civil war, and therefore I understand the complexity of the situation and the trauma left by such a period.

During my visit, the following issues were brought to my attention.

Legal framework on freedom of opinion and expression

Freedom of opinion and expression is guaranteed by the Constitution (articles 36 and 41). The 1990 Information Code, which ended the State monopoly over print media, provides some protection to the media (articles 14 and 78). However, a series of legal restrictions exist, most notably article 97 of the Information Code which provides that “whosoever deliberately offends… the head of state in office may be punished by imprisonment for at least one year and a fine of 3,000 to 30,000 DA, or one of the two punishments only”. The amendment of the Algerian Penal Code made in 2001 broadened the restrictions on the media, prohibiting the publication of information offending a magistrate, a civil servant, a public official, a commander or a State security agent. Sanctions may be taken against the author of the offence, the publisher and the editor, and the publication itself (articles 144 and 144 bis1 of the Penal Code).

In the past, several journalists, who notably denounced corruption, had been charged for defamation and sentenced to imprisonment, although in most instances the sentence was not executed. I consider this as a clear intimidation of the press, which has a chilling effect on freedom of expression by generating an attitude of self-censorship among journalists.
           
I believe defamation should be decriminalized as a matter of priority, and transformed into a civil action. In particular, defamation should never be used to stifle criticism of State institutions and policies. Therefore, I wish to reiterate the recommendation by the Human Rights Committee made in 2007 which states that the “2001 amendment to the Criminal Code makes it an offence to defame and insult State officials and institutions and that such offences are subject to severe penalties, in particular imprisonment… The State party should […] amend its legislation in order to decriminalize defamation”. In this regard, I strongly welcome the announcement by the President to decriminalize press offence.

I am also concerned about article 46 of the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation, adopted by referendum, which infringes freedom of opinion and expression, according to the Human Rights Committee. Let me reiterate that reconciliation can never be achieved by imposing silence, and that peace has to be based on the right to truth and the right to access justice of the victim. In the case of forced disappearances, these rights take a particular relevance. In this regard, I recommend the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances to visit Algeria. In meeting with the National Human rights Commission, I mentioned the importance of raising the legitimate human rights demands of all sectors of civil society of the present and of the past. I also reiterated the importance of guaranteeing its independence in the appointment procedure and in its work.

Freedom of peaceful assembly and demonstration

I welcome the recent lifting of the state of emergency, which was in place since 1992. This is certainly a positive sign. However, I caution that the existing legal framework is still restrictive, and infringes the right to freedom of opinion and expression. It is important that freedom of peaceful assembly and demonstration be seen as complementary to freedom of opinion and expression, and therefore fully guaranteed by the State.

Since the lifting of the state of emergency, a 2001 decree banning marches in Algiers has reportedly been used to prevent a number of marches in the capital, and in other cities, like in Oran. A number of marches were tolerated though.

In fact, during my visit, I was able to observe several peaceful assemblies, and one march by students, contained by a massive police presence. The march was eventually violently dispersed by security forces. I received testimonies that violence was used against a peaceful assembly of relatives of the disappeared. I urge the Government not to use force against peaceful demonstrators, and in the case of the relatives of the disappeared, to recognize their right to express themselves publicly.

I also met a woman who was arrested in Mostaganem for distributing flyers calling on a peaceful demonstration to defend the right of the unemployed, and charged under article 100 of the Penal Code which prohibits all direct provocation to an unarmed gathering through leaflets. I raised this case with the authorities, and I am hopeful that the accusation will be withdrawn, and that the judge will close the case.

I was further told that restrictions also presently apply to public meetings as the receipt has reportedly been unduly delayed whereas, according to law 91-19, it should be given immediately upon submission of the request.

In this matter again, I would like to reiterate the recommendation of the Human Rights Committee that the “State should ensure that any restrictions imposed on the right to peaceful assembly and demonstration and on the registration of associations and the peaceful pursuit of their activities are compatible with articles 21 and 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights”. To this end, I recommend the Government to amend law 91-19, which stipulates that the organisers of a public demonstration must obtain an authorisation eight days before the event, by introducing a regime of declaration.

Although not specifically under my mandate, I would encourage the State to facilitate the exercise of the right to freedom of association, making the registration procedure as fast and simple as possible. I heard several complaints of trade unions which are unable to operate because they never received the receipt which grants them legal personality. Freedom of expression can also be exercised collectively. To this end, I would recommend the State to extend an invitation to the newly appointed Special Procedures mandate-holder on freedoms of assembly and association.

Freedom of the press

I reckon that Algeria has come a long way from the black decade, during which 100 journalists were killed. Today, journalists no longer fear for their lives while performing their work. Nevertheless, journalists face a number of challenges and legal intimidation that impede their important work.

One event particularly struck me as a clear act of intimidation against the profession of journalists. On 5 March 2011, 10 journalists were recently arrested by security forces during a demonstration in Oran, although they clearly identified themselves as journalists. They were subsequently released. The detention itself is a form of intimidation.

I received various testimonies expressing the impossibility of receiving information from public authorities. In all democratic societies, transparency of public activities plays a crucial role for the confidence and trust of the population. Since State officials work in representation of the people and for the common/public good, all official activities and management of resources should also be made public at the request of citizens, especially journalists. According to the information received, I recommend that State institutions design a common strategy of communication that would keep the public better informed. I would specifically recommend Parliament to enact a legislation on access to public information, which should in itself establish the limitations of an exceptional nature.

I believe that journalists should be held to high professional standards and ethical values, but as a process of self-regulation and in a voluntary fashion, never by determination of State authorities or by law. Here again I wish to reiterate the Human Rights Committee’s recommendation that encourages the State of Algeria to re-establish an independent journalists’ organization to deal with matters of professional ethics and conduct.

Anyone should be able to start a publication without any restrictions, and there should be no official mechanisms of authorisation, just simply a notification to the State institutions. During my visit I received testimonies of associations and trade unions expressing their desire to initiate a publication of their own, and who have not received any response from State authorities to their applications filed. The establishment of a publication should be merely declaratory.

I received testimonies of several journalists in reference of unfair allocation of official advertising by ANEP as a way to sanction criticism and encourage self-censorship of journalists. In my opinion, such an allocation should be done with principles of equity and fairness, with clear standards that will not allow privileging those who are closer to Government positions or punishing those who are critical of public policies. I recommend Parliament to enact a legislation which makes ANEP a truly independent institution and establishes principles on how to manage allocation of said advertising.

I further received testimonies from journalists on the dependence of the majority of newspapers on State-owned printing rotatives and access to paper, which seriously limits their press freedom. It is important that the printing activity not be held exclusively in the hands of the Government, but becomes an open and competitive enterprise. Equally, the supply of paper for print has to be diversified so as not to give anyone the control.

Another pervasive form of pressure on editorial position was brought to my attention. Two newspapers, El Watan and El Khabar, went through 6-month auditing processes by the tax system in 2010.

I was informed of the existence of about 80 daily newspapers, most of which are very small and depend entirely on official publicity for their subsistence. I see that as a problem since I was told on several occasions that they are reportedly used by the State to create a “balance” to critical newspapers.

Although a national journalist identification card should never be necessary to practice professional journalism, many journalists expressed their concern at not having a professional recognition as such. I recommend that such a card be granted upon voluntary request.

Journalists expressed their concerns about their low standards of their labour conditions, which limit their professional freedom.

I note with interest the programs developed by the high school of journalism in professional training of journalists.

I am also concerned with the need to facilitate access to the country to any foreign journalist. In addition, some accreditations are given for only one week, and can be withdrawn any time. The visa and the accreditation, and their renewals, should not be used as a threat or limit the freedom of journalists to cover all stories.

Finally, I take note with concern that the news television channel Al Jazeera is not allowed to operate in the country.

TV and radio broadcasting

It is very clear that the opening that was granted to the written press in the early 1990s is yet to occur with the television and radio broadcasting given that there are under the control of the Government.

Several interlocutors mentioned the fact that national television and radio did an oriented coverage of the recent protests in the country, and that they do not grant sufficient access to opposition parties and critical NGOs. These affirmations were, however, refuted by the directors of television and radio. In this regard, the only way to guarantee openness is to establish an independent collective authority for broadcasting with the representation of different sectors of stakeholders, including the press and civil society, which could guarantee genuine independence in the public broadcasting service. This is all the more relevant since a high percentage of the population draws their information from the television and the radio.

In addition, it is also important to consider the possibility of opening some broadcasting channels and frequencies to private or joint initiatives. I note with satisfaction the fast-time table determined by the Minister of Communication for the digitalisation of the system, which will allow the diversification of initiatives.

Internet

I welcome the work of the Ministry of Posts, and Information and Communication Technologies in giving increased access to internet to the population through librairies and public internet centres, reaching 8 million of users. I am further encouraged by the plans presented by the Minister aiming at expanding the network of internet services through fibre optic cables, and through other existing networks.

Internet is a crucial element for exercising the right to access to information and freedom of opinion and expression, as well as the right to education and the right to development.

I was informed by the Minister of Posts, and Information and Communication Technologies of the policy of not developing internet blocking and filtering mechanisms. However, I received testimonies about the breakdown of Facebook for a short period of time during the recent events in neighbouring countries in the region, which the same Minister denied. Similarly, the website of a news agency was reportedly disrupted for 15 days during the same period.

With regard to law 09-04 on the prevention and fight against offences linked to information and communication technologies, I wish to stress that the interpretation and application of the law should be understood as an exception to the general norm of allowing internet, as well as all forms of communication, as opened and free as possible, with very few qualified exceptions.

Finally, in my opinion, there is a very clear contradiction between the law to censor imported books and the fact that internet and the purchase of satellite dishes are allowed. The censorship of the import of books by the Ministry of Culture is just a reminiscence of the past. The free circulation of books is a very symbolic element of freedom of opinion and expression.

Conclusion

As a conclusion, I would like to reiterate the importance of freedom of opinion and expression, and access to information, in a truly democratic society. I have pointed out to the authorities that for the younger generations, the logic of the past can no longer be used to refrain their expectations and limit their freedoms. Young people today want to look forward and insist on their desire to have more freedom, free expression, and job opportunities. Freedom of expression, jointly with the right to peaceful assembly and demonstration, allow society to ease the tension.

I would like to reiterate that my recommendations are made as a friend of Algeria, and that I would express my desire to return to give technical advice and follow up on the recommendations.

I will present my report with my final conclusions and recommendations to the Human Rights Council in 2012.

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