Algiers – Independent media outlets in Algeria are under increasing pressure, despite a guarantee of press freedom in the country’s newly approved constitution, journalists say.
Two television executives have spent the past three weeks in jail after investigations into two satirical talk shows. Mehdi Benaissa, the manager of KBC TV, and Riad Hartouf, the private channel’s head of production, were arrested last month, along with culture ministry official Nora Nedjai, who licensed the shows. The group stands accused of engaging in illegal production practices.
Their arrests came only days after Algerian security forces shut down production of the KBC talk shows Ness Stah and Ki Hna Ki Ness, which premiered during Ramadan. The satirical shows have tackled controversial political and economic issues in the country, including allegations of corruption against long-serving President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and members of his government. One sketch on Ness Stah made an allusion to the fragile health of Bouteflika, who was partially paralysed after suffering a stroke in 2013.
“The suspension of both shows is a message of intimidation for private media companies, particularly for publications or productions which depict Algeria’s regime with derision,” said Abdou Semmar, editor-in-chief of the Algerian digital newspaper Algerie-Focus and a political commentator on Ki Hna Ki Ness.
Algerian authorities say KBC’s managers made “false declarations” to obtain recording permits and used the banned studio space of Atlas TV, a private channel shut down after a police raid during the 2014 presidential election. If convicted, the two executives could face up to three years in jail. Nedjai, who is charged with abusing a public office, faces the same potential sentence.
Journalists were highly critical of the state’s move, saying KBC was targeted when other pro-government networks were not, and warning that the arrests could have a chilling effect on other media outlets.
“The best way to intimidate media is to discredit it by claiming that it does not respect the laws,” Ali Boukhlef, deputy politics editor for the French-language Algerian daily El Watan, told Al Jazeera.
Semmar contended that the arrests were a “pretext” for a broader state crackdown on press freedoms.
This has pushed the government to put more pressure on existing newspapers and TV channels, exploiting the legal vacuum in which this sector is plunged.
“The regime has been looking for such legal irregularities to weaken media organisations that are not politically correct,” he told Al Jazeera.
Officials with Algeria’s communications ministry declined Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
The KBC case has ignited an international outcry, with journalists and human rights activists staging protests in Algiers and Bejaia to show solidarity and call for the executives’ release. An online petition demanding Nedjai’s release has been signed by more than 2,000 people.
“No journalist should be put behind bars because of work at a television station,” Sherif Mansour, the Middle East and North Africa programme coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said in a statement that urged Algerian authorities to “let media professionals do their jobs without the threat of imprisonment”.
KBC is part of the privately owned El Khabar media group, which runs an Arabic-language daily newspaper of the same name.
This week, an Algerian appeals court cancelled the planned sale of El Khabar to Algerian businessman Issad Rebrab, upholding a lower-court verdict. The Algerian government had opposed the sale, saying it violated the country’s anti-monopoly law. Under the law, a single legal entity cannot own, control and manage more than one periodic publication in Algeria.
Rebrab already runs the French-language daily Liberte, which is known for its anti-government tone. Riccardo Fabiani, a senior Middle East and North Africa analyst with the Eurasia Group, says there is a long history of mistrust between Rebrab and the Algerian government.
“In this context, the government is targeting Rebrab’s acquisition of El Khabar to stop the businessman’s rising influence and threat to the regime’s current power configuration,” Fabiani told Al Jazeera, noting the regime fears that Rebrab could use his media influence to attack the state. “The Algerian regime has learned some valuable lessons from Russia and Italy: that oligarchs can be a threat to political power, and that controlling the media is a very effective way of influencing decision-making.”
El Watan is also embroiled in a legal fight with Algerian authorities. Last month, police prevented the independent media outlet, which is known for its opposition to Bouteflika, from moving to a new headquarters in Algiers, saying it did not have the necessary permit.
“That was not a surprise. We expected that incursion, since we are used to such hostile moves,” Boukhlef said.
Journalists throughout Algeria say that they are concerned about the state of press freedom in the country, with Algeria ranking 129 out of 180 countries in the 2016 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders.
“The situation is not nearly as bad as it was during the Black Decade – when about 120 journalists were murdered – but the authorities have been recently using new methods: a combination of a legal arsenal and economic blackmail to curb the influence of independent and opposition press,” Semmar said.
Some media outlets critical of the government have been deprived of badly needed revenue after advertisers withdrew content amid pressure from the state, he added. The state-run printing and distribution network provides another mechanism for censoring media publications, Semmar said.
Boukhlef believes that the state has recently intensified its crackdown on the press in an effort to control the message before Bouteflika’s successor takes power, whenever that may be.
“The authorities want to stifle the remaining independent media organisations in an effort to muzzle all dissenting voices,” he said. “The rulers are making sure that nobody stands against the political change that will occur after Bouteflika leaves.”
Fabiani agreed, noting that while Algeria “can still boast the most lively and critical press in the whole of North Africa after Tunisia … it is true that the regime has become more concerned with press freedom lately”, a situation he attributed to the upcoming presidential succession and worsening economic outlook.
“The authorities fear that instability could undermine the difficult political and economic transition ahead,” Fabiani said. “This has pushed the government to put more pressure on existing newspapers and TV channels, exploiting the legal vacuum in which this sector is plunged. While I consider it unlikely that the regime will be able to muzzle the press, it is nevertheless possible that in the coming years, local journalists will struggle with a more hostile environment.”