15 April 2021
The High Cost of Critical Journalism

"The aim of sending me to prison was to make me suffer as much as possible. By throwing me in with individuals classed as 'criminals', my jailers tried to make my incarceration unbearable."
APN met with Algerian publisher
Mohammed Benchicou one year after he was released from prison where he served a two-year sentence widely regarded as a punishment for his outspokenness and criticism of the Algerian regime.

In June 2004, Mohammed Benchicou, founder and publisher of the daily Le Matin, was sentenced to two years in prison for violating Algeria's currency exchange laws. Both Algerian media and international observers consider that the charges against Benchicou were motivated by the newspaper's relentless criticism of President Bouteflika and other government officials. Only months before being arrested, Benchicou published the book "Bouteflika, an Algerian Fraud", a biography about the President.

As if prison was not enough, Le Matin was suspended a month after Benchicou's arrest. The official reason for closing down the newspaper was "default on payment." At the time, Le Matin had a circulation of 125,000 copies and the closure left 300 people unemployed.

APN met Benchicou one year after his release from prison. He now resides in Paris, where he is currently working on his next book, which tells about his time in prison. Despite the hardships he has lived, Benchicou has lost none of his passion in the fight for freedom of speech.

APN: Your last book "Bouteflika, an Algerian Fraud", earned you 24 months behind bars.

I was punished for writing the book, as well as for the editorial line adopted by Le Matin. Officially, I was condemned for a customs offence that does not exist. The Algerian government is very innovative when it comes to creating completely fabricated counts of indictment, since press offences do not necessarily lead to prison in Algeria. There are prison sentences for such offences, but the law is only rarely applied and for short sentences. With me, the government acted like an absolutist regime: it invented a common law offence. It came up with a crime that does not exist under Algerian law, namely holding savings certificates.

The authorities instructed the printers not to produce it and bookshops not to sell it. However, no legal charges were ever filed against the book itself. Le Matin was suspended a month after my imprisonment for non-payment of bills. In fact, the newspaper was subject to a demand for tax arrears following my imprisonment. Its accounts were frozen and it was impossible to make any bank transfers.

APN: In what conditions were you held?

MB: I enjoyed the solid support of my fellow prisoners, both materially and morally. The aim of sending me to prison was to make me suffer as much as possible. By throwing me in with individuals classed as delinquents, my jailers tried to make my incarceration unbearable.

They would have liked me to crack and demand to be released on any condition. That would have been a victory for them and a defeat for the freedom of the press. My fellow inmates foiled their plan by turning my fight into their own. And that is how I was able to resist.

APN: Do you think you will be able to re-launch Le Matin?

In principle yes. Le Matin is the victim of a political ban, even if it was suspended for not paying bills. If the authorities do not want the newspaper to reappear, they will have to invent a tax bill. International organisations need to help us bend the political will of the government that is holding the newspaper hostage. If the political will exists, it should be possible to re-launch the newspaper.

What bothers the authorities today is my reappearance. This is a problem of power and authority. It is the exemplary value of repression that is important to them. Once a person has been punished, they would like to make it impossible for that individual to recover. My return after a spell in prison disturbs the image that people should have of authority and the government's power. That is why the authorities would like to remove me from the media scene.

APN: You no longer write columns in Le Soir D'Algérie views, do you?

MB: No, I had to stop publishing these columns in mid-April 2007. The management of Le Soir d'Algérie was frightened. The newspaper said that it was under a lot of pressure. In a letter signed by Hachemi Djiar, Minister of Communication and published by a few national newspapers, the authorities threatened to send me back to prison.

It also threatened to punish Le Soir d'Algérie, which had been publishing my columns since my release on 14 June 2006. This time the authorities used the pretext that the newspaper had announced that my book "Bouteflika, an Algerian Fraud" would be for sale at the Paris Book Fair.

APN: In a press release published by you at the time, you claimed that freedom of the press is under more pressure than ever in Algeria.

The government is currently in its second phase of repression. During the first phase, which lasted from 2003 to 2006, seven journalists were imprisoned, including five for press offences, and 125 journalists were taken to court. During this phase, Algeria became the most repressive country in the Arab world. There was an increase in police harassment and several newspapers were suspended.

However, thanks to international mobilisation and disapproval, the government was forced to pardon a number of journalists. In one single day 87 cases were re-judged. In other words, the authorities tried to send a positive signal. By the end on their war against the press, they had failed to eliminate the main newspapers, but the freedom of expression enjoyed by the Algerian press had been significantly reduced.

The paradox of Algeria is that there is a free press, despite the repression. The government is being criticized for its unpopular policies. Today it is more aggressive than ever in its repression of the media that report on these policies.

The break between the first and second phase of the repression did not last since the government could not resist the desire to muzzle the press, which it would like to silence entirely. Today's eighteen year-olds have grown up with a free press. This makes it impossible for the authorities to envisage getting rid of the press without deploying a major repressive force. Any such move would attract international disapproval.

Today we have the status quo of a free press and a government that is trying to muzzle it. One side has to win over the other. There is only one way for the free press to triumph. Firstly, the audiovisual sector needs to be liberalised, which would reduce the burden on the printed press. Secondly, press offences need to be decriminalized thorough a reform of the laws passed in 2001.  

APN: What other aspects of the Algerian press code need to be amended?

The advertising market, which is almost entirely monopolised by the state, needs to be opened up. At present the government collects advertising independently through a public agency and redistributes it according to the docility of newspapers. We also need to implement mechanisms, like those in other democratic countries, to support the press.

APN: What do you think of the situation and the quality of the press in other Arab countries?

I don't admire the Arab press. The Arab world is one of the most backward regions in the world in terms of freedom of the press. In most countries we see propaganda machines structurally aligned with the government in power, not a free press.

Exceptions to this rule are perhaps Lebanon and Morocco. However, even in countries where the press is private and "independent," it does not exercise its status of a free press. The media are not on the side of the people because they are afraid, muzzled and repressed.

But freedom of the press is not granted, it is snatched. Take Algeria, for example. It was the major demonstration of October 1988, preceded by the Berber spring of April 1980, which made it possible to achieve pluralism. A thousand people died in these demonstrations.

From this point onwards the authorities were obliged to give the press a certain degree of freedom and multipartism. Compared to that period, ground has been lost. Bouteflika believes that the prerogatives of communicating and making claims belong to the state.

The President has a formula that sums up his vision of the situation: "I left in 1970 leaving the state with the powers of Franco, I returned to find it with the powers of the Queen of England." According to him, the state that concedes democratic freedom is a weak state, while a strong state should take back the freedom granted to the population.

Yet despite the repression carried out by the regime, it has failed to wipe out the achievements of October 1988. I believe that we are facing two realities. On one hand we have a government that dreams of re-legitimising the one-party state, and on the other hand we have a society that has experienced 20 years of pluralism.

The battle opposing these two realities is taking place today. I think that it will be very difficult for the government to return to the situation of the past. It will also be difficult for society to gain the upper hand in the immediate future. Instead, this will be an ongoing fight that looks set to mark the next ten years.

APN: What do you expect from the international community in terms of a gesture?

I expect it to elevate the Algerian press's battle to an international level by referring openly to the ongoing struggle. The international community can help the Algerian media in their struggle for freedom by pressuring the Algerian government to liberalise the audiovisual sector, decriminalize press offences and open up the advertising market. Lastly, it should discourage state intervention in the media, which does not happen in other democratic countries, and offer the press financial support via subsidies.

APN: A recent resolution adopted by the U.N. Council for Human Rights legitimises censorship of freedom of speech under the pretext of protecting religious sensitivities. It has been adopted by a number of Arab countries, including Algeria.

There are a growing number of regulations restricting freedom of speech under various pretexts such as terrorism etc. The Arab world has witnessed two conflicting phenomena in recent years. On the one hand, regimes are trying to secure their long-term power - by force if necessary - as seen in Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria and Syria. On the other, Arab societies are trying to follow the world trend towards freedom of speech.

The democratic question will lie at the heart of debates in the Arab world and the press will inevitably by affected by this antagonism. In one way or another, the media will be obliged to adopt a position. The media will be at the centre of these contradictions, which result in excessive repression of them.

At the same time this should act as a wake-up call for a new type of media in the Arab world. If I have one appeal to make, it is for the international community to offer support, remain vigilant and pay attention to the Arab world, where many developments are currently taking place. As long as we do not place the democratic question at the heart of exchanges between the West and the Arab world, there will be no solution to key problems like immigration facing us at the moment. The West must realise that the populations of the Southern hemisphere are not asking for food aid, but for democracy. Without a democratic government, it will never be possible to stablise the population in these countries.