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Algeria: Authorities Use “Coronavirus” to Impose Political Quarantine

Lyas Hallas
Algerian Journalist
June 4, 2020
The epidemic was an opportunity for the Algerian authorities to isolate everything they deemed to be “germs”, the proliferation of which poses a threat to the repressive system. They exploited the quarantine to continue neutralizing the "disharmony” by tightening supervision...

  • This article was prepared in cooperation with Pulitzer Center.

The epidemic was an opportunity for the Algerian authorities to isolate everything they deemed to be “germs”, the proliferation of which poses a threat to the repressive system.

Censorship of electronic newspapers and social media has been tightened.

Algerians suspended the anti-regime protests that continued for more than a year, because of the “Coronavirus” pandemic, as of March 20, with the government imposing quarantine on April 5. This did not prevent the authorities from punishing the opposition by imprisoning those who are believed to be the symbols of the popular movement.

The arrests did not begin with quarantine, but many people have been arrested during the quarantine, which coincided with amendments to the penal code. The Authority has developed the legal means that did not previously exist, in order to neutralize the voices that they deem disharmonious. These arrests were pedagogically similar to those that had occupied Said Mekbel’s thinking, who was looking into the causes of the murder of intellectuals and journalists, before he was assassinated in 1994. No one threatens journalists, intellectuals, and politicians with murder anymore, and we hope that this will not be repeated again. But unfortunately, the violence has not disappeared, only its tools have changed.

In a statement to the Algerian TV channel “Al-Hadath” on May 21, lawyer Abdul-Ghani Badi, who is responsible for defending most prisoners of conscience, warned against the consequences of these abuses on the integrity of the state. “These practices existed during Bouteflika’s rule, but to a lesser degree than this,” he said sadly, grieving the increase of the pace of repressive practices. He called on the judges to keep in mind the interests of the state: “We tell judges that they should not defend the regime, not the state. The state is not the regime, and it is not in its best interest to tread on freedoms or violate rights.”

Badi’s statement followed a series of trials that involved activists across the country’s states, due to their posts online expressing their views on social media, as well as arbitrary administrative measures against electronic newspapers, which confirmed the authority’s desire to impose censorship on various media outlets that it does not control. While controlling traditional media is easy, the Internet remains a space for all. Perhaps what has contributed to the crystallization of anti-regime ideas in recent years is the democratization of the Internet, whose spread has nearly quadrupled in the last five years. It also paved the way for the use of social media as an alternative media outlet that has contributed strongly to popular movement. This justified the amendment of the Penal Code and the targeting of activists to sow terror among the internet’s users.

Demonstration against the arrests in January 2020

Al-Minshar Stops Publishing

The fact that the e-newspaper “Al-Minshar” stopped being published while Algerians were in quarantine was surprising, and many of its readers did not understand the reasons behind this action, and expressed their bewilderment through social media, since the newspaper hadn’t been directly pressured by the authority. Algerians are used to newspapers getting shut down, whether it be for economic reasons or because of the authority’s abuse of power. With this in mind, if we are to discuss the reasons for some people’s surprise, it will require a deep dive into the Algerian press to find a similar situation.

The profession’s veterans report that the French regional newspaper Les Nouvelles de l’Est, run by journalist Boubacar Hamidshi, stopped issuing because of the 1992 assassination of President Mohamed Boudiaf. The owners felt that it was useless to publish a newspaper in a country where the head of State was assassinated on air. It is not out of fear that Hamidshi suspended his newspaper’s publication., but rather he continued his work in journalism during the years of horror and continues to write a column in Le Soir d’Algerie, which is one of the harshest criticizers of the political system and its secrets.

The Information Act of 1990 opened the door for the Special Initiative in the field of media and information, hundreds of newspapers were launched and others were closed. These scattered events have not been documented accurately, and those who lived them are keeping them secret, for different reasons, only bringing them up from time to time, because of the resurfacing of some pain. The legislature also controlled discussing them through harsh laws that prohibit free speech regarding some of its aspects, like the tragedies of the 1990s, a period in which journalists, intellectuals, politicians and activists of all walks paid a high price.

The blockade on the media was comprehensive under the provisions of the Counter-Terrorism Convention, journalists were prosecuted and newspapers were closed. Dozens were also assassinated by terrorist groups. That period was marked by forced disappearances, and among those who disappeared was a journalist named Jamil Fahas. The headquarters of the newspaper “Le Soir D’Algeri” was also blown up by a car bomb in 1996, resulting in the murder of three of its journalists.

German journalist Monika Borgmann published interviews with Said Mekbel before his assassination in 1994 in a book published in 2008 by Teraèdre (Paris) and al-Jadeed (Beirut), entitled “Said Mekbel: “Dying by Letter”, in which she highlighted his concept of “the Pedagogic Assassinations.”

Mekbel, Le Matin’s director, was one of the few with high degrees among his fellow journalists. He was tortured in the prisons of the one-party system, despite his doctorate in physics, and despite being one of the most educated people of his time. He did not yield to the fear he was living and continued his work as a journalist, waiting for his turn in the line for death, while the oppressors waged war on intellectuals and other journalists. He kept himself preoccupied with the reasons of their murder.

Mekbel’s Theory

Mekbel assumed that this was not random, and that those who planned to assassinate the journalists wanted to deliver a shocking message, as the impact of such assassination is the same as that of sabotaging schools or factories. Those crimes had “pedagogic” goals such as instilling fear among people, regardless of the identity of the killer. The journalist also quoted Mekbel’s belief that the intellectuals were chosen carefully by those who masterminded the assassination, and the reason was that “they transfer knowledge to others.”

Le Matin continued for ten years after Mekbel was assassinated, then it stopped after its manager Mohammed Benchicou was imprisoned as a punishment, after he wrote Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s biography, in 2004. However, the misdemeanor that justified his punishment was a flimsy economic one, related to a case that had nothing to do with the president.

Bouteflika’s time has not been without prosecutions against journalists, even if they weren’t frequent. Although the complaining parties compounded, the deposed president filed one case against the journalist Kamal Amarni of the newspaper “Le Soir d’Algerie” because of an article about the use of the state’s means in his election campaign. Bouteflika granted two hundred of the journalists and newspaper’s owners a presidential pardon in 2005, some of whom were imprisoned for cases prior to his rule. Then he directed the media censorship to drain its sources and economically strangle it through pressuring advertisers. During his rule, critical newspapers were excluded from public and private advertisements. Even the private advertisement companies did not publish their ads in the newspapers that were not approved by the authorities.

The reason why those in charge of the satirical “Al-Minshar” newspaper decided to stop publishing was neither the economic difficulties nor the death threats, it was the self-censorship that grew due to the fear among the journalists and civil society activists after a series of arrests of journalists and activists, which increased under the quarantine measures of “Coronavirus”.

The announcement of the suspension of the newspaper stated the following: “We have not been withheld nor censored by the authority. The decision was taken by the editorial team. The suppression of freedoms and arrests of citizens because of their activity on social media is what made us think of the threats we’re exposed to. We have lived moments of fear and resisted for five years, through which we tried to contribute in our own way, sarcasm, to overcome the difficulties that our country is facing. We never thought we would reach this point one day. May we meet you all in a better Algeria, where there is no place for fear and there is a chance for everyone to unleash their creative energy.”

Days before the suspension of “Al-Minshar”, the government amended the Penal Code under the pretext of fighting false news that is published via social media. It is clear that the goal was to narrow the spaces of freedom of expression. Fighting false news can be achieved through creating the appropriate conditions to build effective information tools, and through encouraging media literacy that enables citizens to deal with what is published through media, which is what the authority apparently had no intention to do. The proof of that is imprisoning youth just because they master expressing their opinions using the tools of their time.

Pedagogy of Arrests

The regime’s totalitarianism is based on monistic thought, and was keen from the beginning to force this thought on everyone through violence. Since there is no place in prisons for everyone, some people had to be targeted to sow terror. Since censorship on ideas would not be enough, fear had to persist, thus implementing direct legal measures against some, even if arbitrary, and producing social judgments against others, or both. Some were imprisoned because of “Facebook” posts and others were stigmatized due to accusations of contact with foreign parties for the same reason: thinking differently.

Indeed, Waleed Kashida (25 years old) was arrested on charge of “violating national unity” because he published “memes” in a sarcastic way to criticize his reality. Journalist Khaled Drareni, director of “Casbah Tribune”, was imprisoned on charge of “inciting a crowd” and due to unknown campaigners launched a sinister campaign against him that attracted the attention of those in charge of combating cybercrime.

Khaled Drareni said, after questioning him weeks before his imprisonment, that what bothered him was questioning his patriotism in a security center not far away from a street that is named after his uncle “Muhammed”, who died a martyr during the liberation revolution. His father, who was a soldier in the national liberation army, wrote an open letter to the president of the republic, Abdul-Majeed Tabun, in which he denounced the defamation and injustice suffered by Khaled and his family. However, the message did not change a thing. A few days later, public television was dedicated to justify the imprisonment of the four journalists who were languishing in jails. This occurred during a TV program that allowed prosecutors to try the journalists on air in an apparent violation of the presumption of innocence and without allowing their lawyers to forestall accusations.

In another interview with presenters of other media outlets, the President of the Republic spoke about a journalist whose name was not mentioned, and this was understood to be related to Khaled Drareni. He submitted, according to him, “a document to the embassy of a certain country” about being questioned by a security agency that he did not mention.

The president called Khaled Drareni an “informant” without mentioning his name and he was not upset with his questioning, but he wanted that to be far from the eyes of the national and international public opinion. His statement was nowhere near the content of Drareni’s judicial file, as he was arrested during covering the demonstrations and the charges against him are totally different from the facts that were mentioned by the president. It was as if the president was explaining to the public that Drareni was punished because he informed the public of the warning given to him in the mentioned security center before there was a judicial process against him.

Khalid Drareni and Walid Kechida have many followers on social media platforms due to their success in what they’re doing and wisely choosing the platforms through which they share their content. However, not only did the arrest campaigns reach well-known people on the international and national scene, but also unknown people who have no impact even on their neighbors such as; Ahmed Sidi Moussa and Yasser Kadiri from the desert town of Timimoun (1220 km south of Algiers).

Ahmed Sidi Moussa is a street vendor who sells tea and nuts in town square, while Yasser Kadiri is unemployed, and holds a degree in life sciences. Both of them share their participation in the movements, every Friday, on Facebook―before they were suspended because of the ‘Coronavirus’ pandemic―as they walk along with another person and a little kid in a march of four individuals. Despite the symbolic nature of the scene of four individuals in a city of 40,000 people, the regime-with an iron hand-arrested and imprisoned them for “Harming national unity”. The security mindset can not tolerate the existence of such proliferating cells that might destabilize the regime. This is pure pedagogy.

Overbroad Application of Legal Acts

This article cannot mention all detainees aligned with the people’s movement. But it is worth noting that being imprisoned, for their opinions and political stance, often expressed through Facebook posts, is a cause that brings them together. In this regard, the “loose” enforcement of legal acts is remarkable, according to the lawyer, Abdelghani Badi.

Badi explained that El Abiodh Sidi Cheikh Court sentenced―the head of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights ‘LADDH’ in Abiodh (525 kilometers south-west of Algiers)―Larbi Tahar and, the activist, Boussif Mohamed Boudiaf to 18 months in prison, for posts on Facebook. The first was accused of “Insulting the president” and sharing posts they deemed “Potentially damaging to the national interest,” while the latter was accused of “Insulting a statutory body,” and “Sharing tendentious information that seriously jeopardize public order,” This last charge is included in the latest amendments to the Penal Code.

Also worthy of notice is the posts’ content. The first one addressed the legitimacy of the President Tebboune while the second post condemned the arrest of Ahmed Sidi Moussa and Yasser Kadiri from Timimoun, considering that the judiciary was unjust.

“How is it possible to convict people demanding judicial independence or a legitimate president, in a stage like that which we are witnessing, during this trying political crisis? Unfortunately, within the past ten days, similar sentences have already been delivered by the Chlef Courts, Ain Temouchent, Abiodh, Tebessa and Cheraga. These are nothing but restrictions on freedom of opinion and political thought and practice.”

Badi added, explaining that the judges have to “Seek a way to effectively enforce the law, as they often apply laws inaccurately, just like what happened in the “Amazigh flag” cases.” Furthermore, he believed that enforcing the law in such a way is in the best interest of the authority: “There is nothing in the Algerian law that prohibits carrying a flag other than the national flag during demonstrations. However, many Algerians were accused of “Harming national unity” because they raised Amazigh flags. ِAnd enforcing the law in such a way is clearly in the interest of the authority, not the country.”

In another context, the Authority blocked many websites such as; Maghreb Emergent, Radio M and lematindalgerie.com. The Minister of Communication, Ammar Belhimer, tried to justify this once by claiming that these websites received financing from abroad―hinting at serving foreign agendas, without providing evidence―and sometimes by claiming that they insult the President. Nevertheless, his inconsistency led him to say, in another statement, that “These online newspapers are uncensored due to the availability of virtual private networks ‘VPN’ that unblocks them.”

Clearly, the minister didn’t notice how ironic his statement was, as his confirmation of the repressive intention of the authority, included a confession that its approach has already failed to impose censorship, thinking that this allows him to say that online newspapers are uncensored.

So, in a nutshell, the regime wants to prevent any doubts or hesitations, and is obsessed with finding in every small event―such as the marches in Timimoun―germ cells that must be destroyed because, from its perspective, they may proliferate and disturb his monistic thinking. Therefore, the arrest of the tea seller, Ahmed Sidi Moussa, and Yasser Kadiri is perfectly pedagogical. The regime’s agents record and punish everything they deem as different. Moreover, they create legal norms to frame behaviours that they believe should be combated, as was the case with the updated misdemeanors, under the pretext of combating misinformation.

The regime does not hesitate to take direct measures, such as imprisonment―some of which are legal and the others are arbitrary―and affecting social judgments to stigmatize, shame and accuse the opponents of intelligence cooperation, or using these two approaches together as they did with Khaled Drareni. The ‘Coronavirus’ pandemic did not deter the regime from using violence to weaken the opposition, and even use it to increase levels of repression. This violence aims to spread fear, because violence, in the regime’s opinion, keeps opponents’ fear alive. The tools of violence have changed over the years―and during the phases of renewing the regime’s political facade―but they remain as the country’s style of governance. This does not seem to change, in the short term, until everyone believes that things have changed, though reality says otherwise.

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