State-run printers refused to publish six national dailies, among the most popular in the Muslim country of 32 million people, on 18 August saying it was because the titles had failed to pay outstanding bills.

   

The newspapers called it indirect censorship. The dailies hit by the measure had published reports on alleged corruption scandals and abuse of power involving President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and close aides.

   

Le Matin, Le Soir d'Algerie, L'Expression and Errai remained suspended on Tuesday. El Khabar and Liberte have resumed printing after paying the printers what they called a "ransom".

 

Scandals

   

"Once again, the regime, hurt by the scandals revealed by the press, wants to silence the voices that criticise it," said a statement issued by the management of Le Matin, one of the North African country's largest dailies.

   

The government maintained its silence on the issue, and the communications ministry was not immediately available for comment. The state printers insisted their decision was commercial.

   

Some editors and diplomats blamed the apparent clampdown on political power brokers who feared critical reports could hurt Bouteflika's re-election chances if he runs again next April.

   

Paris-based Algeria expert and historian Benjamin Stora said, "There's an offensive against the press as we near presidential elections, this is something classical in Algeria."

 

"Once again, the regime, hurt by the scandals revealed by the press, wants to silence the voices that criticise it."

-Le Matin statement

Faisal Metaoui, editor-in-chief of influential French-language daily El Watan, agreed. "We have the most liberal press in the Arab world and it's hurting Bouteflika," he said.

   

The Algerian press, with nearly 40 dailies, is considered one of the most vibrant in the region and is closely watched by neighbours.

   

In 1998, publication of several newspapers in Algeria was halted for similar reasons after a media campaign led then President Liamine Zeroual to cut short his term.

   

But no newspaper had been suspended since Bouteflika came to office in April 1999.

 

Liberte said authorities had stepped up pressure on independent dailies with inspections of work and insurance permits. The accusation was denied by authorities.

   

State radio said Le Matin director Mohamed Benchicou was questioned by police on Tuesday at the request of the public prosecutor who ordered a judicial inquiry into his bringing cash vouchers into Algeria worth around $150,000 last week.

   

The newspaper remained defiant. "The mafia authorities want to shut down Le Matin but Le Matin will not be silenced," it said in a statement.