Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press and other media. Independent media outlets regularly criticized and satirized government officials and policies, but the government on some occasions restricted these rights. The government’s actions included harassment of some critics, arbitrary enforcement of vaguely worded laws, and informal pressure on publishers, editors, advertisers, and journalists. Some media figures alleged the government used its control over most printing houses and significant funding of public-sector advertising preferentially, and that the lack of clear regulations over these practices permitted it to exert undue influence on press outlets.
Freedom of Expression: While public debate and criticism of the government were widespread, journalists and activists were limited in their ability to criticize the government on topics crossing unwritten “red lines.” Authorities arrested and detained citizens for expressing views deemed damaging to state officials and institutions, including the use of the Berber flag during protests, and citizens practiced self-censorship in expressing public criticism. The law criminalizing speech regarding security force conduct during the internal conflict of the 1990s remained in place, although the government stated there had never been an arrest or prosecution under the law. A separate law provides for up to three years’ imprisonment for publications that “may harm the national interest” or up to one year for defaming or insulting the president, parliament, army, or state institutions. Government officials monitored political meetings.
Authorities have summoned, arrested, and prosecuted journalist Mustapha Bendjama in at least six different cases for charges such as “offense to public bodies” and “undermining national unity.” On June 27, the court in Annaba convicted Bendjama, and the judge sentenced him to two months in prison and 2,500 dinars ($19) fine.
Police arrested former parliamentarian Nordine Ait-Hamouda on June 26 in Bejaia for making “inappropriate statements towards various important national figures.” On August 29, authorities released Ait-Hamouda from El-Harrach prison after two months of incarceration. The Court of Ruisseau in Algiers granted Ait-Hamouda’s provisional release, pending the completion of the investigation and determination of the trial date.
On June 30, security personnel arrested Fethi Ghares, national coordinator of the opposition party Democratic and Social Movement and searched his home. His wife, Messaouda Cheballah, posted a live video of her husband’s arrest and denounced the police’s “indiscreet search of her belongings.”
NGOs reported in 2020 that they stopped holding events outside private locations due to longstanding government suppression and pressure on owners of public gathering spaces.
Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: The National Agency for Publishing and Advertising (ANEP) controlled public advertising for print media, and most daily newspapers depended on ANEP-authorized advertising to finance their operations. Press outlets reported taking extra caution before publishing articles critical of the government or government officials due to fear of losing revenue from ANEP. According to the NGO Reporters without Borders, private advertising existed but frequently came from businesses with close links to the ruling political party. ANEP stated its support for a pluralistic press and freedom of information and noted that it funded opposition newspapers.
In April 2020 parliament adopted amendments to the penal code that criminalize spreading “false news” that harms national unity. Penalties for convictions under the bill, which does not distinguish among news reports, social media, and other media, include prison terms of two to five years and fines. Civil society groups reported that the amendments gave authorities excessive power to prosecute activists and human rights defenders.
On May 10, authorities found journalist Khellaf Benhedda guilty in absentia and fined him 100,000 dinars ($750) for an “offense to the President.”
On May 14, police arrested Maghreb Emergent journalist Kenza Khatto during a Hirak march in Algiers on charges of “incitement to unarmed gathering,” “contempt of police,” and “noncompliance with the instruction of the wali (governor) of Algiers on the ban of marches.”
On May 18, authorities placed journalist El Kadi Ihsane, director of Radio M and Maghreb Emergent websites, on probation. The judge issued a travel ban and confiscated Ihsane’s passport. According to Radio M, authorities charged Ihsane with “undermining national security and territorial unity” and “sharing publications undermining national interest.” The CNLD said the charges emanated from a complaint filed by the Minister of Communication Ammar Belhimer.
On September 6, authorities arrested Hassan Bourras at his home in El Bayadh and charged him with “belonging to a terrorist organization,” “conspiracy against the security of the State to change the system of governance,” and “use of technical and media tools to enlist individuals against the authority of the State.” Bourras is a well known human rights’ activist with the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH). According to the CNLD, authorities transferred Bourras on September 12 to a court in Algiers, which ordered him into pretrial detention.
On September 12, police arrested Mohamed Mouloudj, a reporter for Liberte, and raided his home. On September 14, the Sidi M’hamed Court in Algiers placed Mouloudj in custody and charged him with spreading false news, harming national unity, and belonging to a terrorist group. The court placed him in pretrial detention which was ongoing at year end.
Many civil society organizations, government opponents, and political parties had access to independent print and broadcast media and used them to express their views. Opposition parties also disseminated information via the internet and published communiques but stated they did not have access to the national television and radio stations. Journalists from independent print and broadcast media expressed frustration regarding the difficulty of receiving information from public officials. Except for several daily newspapers, most print media outlets relied on the government for physical printing materials and operations.
Organizations wishing to initiate regular publications must obtain authorization from the government. The law requires the director of the publication to hold Algerian citizenship. The law additionally prohibits local periodicals from receiving direct or indirect material support from foreign sources.
The ministry’s Media Directorate is responsible for issuing and renewing accreditations to foreign media outlets operating in the country. Although this accreditation is required to operate legally, the ministry did not accredit most foreign media. Regulations require the shareholders and managers of any radio or television channel to be citizens and prohibit them from broadcasting content that offends “values anchored in Algerian society.”
The law mandates that online news outlets must inform the government of their activities but does not require them to request authorization to operate.
Violence and Harassment: Authorities subjected some journalists to harassment and intimidation. Journalists reported that selective prosecutions served as a mechanism for intimidation. According to Reporters without Borders, the government intimidated activists and journalists. The government’s actions included harassment of some critics, arbitrary enforcement of vaguely worded laws, and informal pressure on publishers, editors, advertisers, and journalists.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Some major news outlets faced direct and indirect retaliation from the Audiovisual Regulatory Authority (ARAV) for criticism of the government. According to state-run Algerie Presse Service (APS), in March, Algerian authorities warned France 24 to tone down its “biased Hirak coverage.”
On June 13, Communication Minister Ammar Belhimer cancelled France 24’s accreditation for its “clear and repeated hostility towards our country and its institutions.” Upon the withdrawal of France 24’s accreditation, several foreign news outlets said all journalists in Algeria – both foreign and local – faced bureaucratic hurdles and must navigate murky procedural processes to operate.
In June the ARAV suspended El Hayet TV for one week after it broadcast an interview with Nordine Ait Hamouda, the founding member of the opposition party Rally for Culture and Democracy and son of independence war hero Colonel Amirouche Ait Hamouda. During the interview, Nordine Ait Hamouda called several Algerian historical figures “traitors.” The interview prompted the Ministry of Communication to summon El Hayet TV director Habet Hannachi to the ARAV headquarters to explain his decision to broadcast the controversial interview. On June 26, authorities arrested Ait Hamouda and placed him in pretrial detention, although authorities granted his provisional release on August 29 pending trial on charges of “attacking symbols of the nation and the revolution.”
On July 31, the ARAV withdrew the accreditation of Saudi-funded al-Arabiya TV for “propagating misinformation.” In a statement the Ministry of Communication stated al-Arabiya failed to “respect the rules of professional ethics and practiced media misinformation and manipulation.”
On August 16, the Ministry of Communication announced “the immediate and final closure” of the private television channel Lina TV at the request of the ARAV. Communication Minister Ammar Belhimer stated the ARAV had previously warned Lina TV for its “noncompliance with ethical principles.” Belhimer characterized the channel as a “danger to national unity.” The Ministry added that Lina TV did not have the required accreditation to operate.
On August 23, the Ministry of Communication suspended the private progovernment television channel El Bilad TV for one week. The ARAV based its decision on “noncompliance with the requirements of public order” and due to legal proceedings against Ayoub Aissiou, a station shareholder who also owns El Djazairia One. The government accused Aissiou of violating the law on broadcast activity, which forbids holding shares in more than one television station.
On August 23, the Ministry of Communication shut down the private television channel El Djazairia One, after the ARAV recommended its immediate closure. On August 24, officials at the ARAV said El Djazairia One’s owners violated the law on audiovisual activity by purchasing shares in more than one television channel. The station’s owners, brothers Ayoub and Tayeb Aissiou, were close associates of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Bouteflika-era prime minister Ahmed Ouyahia.
On August 24, the ARAV censured state-run EPTV after one of its reporters said the suspects arrested for lynching Djamel Bensmail were charged with belonging to a “terrorist region” instead of a “terrorist organization.” The ARAV stated this was “an unforgivable breach,” prompting EPTV to apologize and discipline the reporter.
Libel/Slander Laws: NGOs and observers criticized the law on defamation as vaguely drafted and stated the definitions in the law failed to comport with internationally recognized norms. The law defines defamation as “any allegation or imputation of a fact offending the honor or consideration of a person, or of the body to which the fact is imputed.” The law does not require that the fact alleged or imputed be false or that the statement be made with malicious intent to damage another individual’s reputation. Defamation is not a crime but a serious misdemeanor that carries a fine. The Ministry of Justice did not provide information on the percentage of defamation claims that originated from private citizens, as opposed to government officials. Defamation laws specify that former members of the military who make statements deemed to have damaged the image of the military or to have “harmed the honor and respect due to state institutions” may face prosecution.
The law criminalizes statements denigrating Islam or insulting the Prophet Muhammed or “messengers of God.”
The government monitored certain email and social media sites.
Internet users regularly exercised their right to free expression and association online, including through online forums, social media, and email. Activists reported that some postings on social media could result in arrest and questioning; observers widely understood that the intelligence services closely monitored the activities of political and human rights activists on social media sites, including Facebook.
There was some disruption of communication prior to planned antigovernment demonstrations during the year, namely internet shutdowns, the blocking of access to certain online news sites and social media platforms, and the restricting or censorship of content. When the Hirak protests resumed in February, parts of the country experienced internet outages during the demonstrations.
The law on cybercrime establishes procedures for using electronic data in prosecutions and outlines the responsibilities of internet service providers (ISPs) to cooperate with authorities. Under the law the government may conduct electronic surveillance to prevent terrorist or subversive acts and infractions against state security, pursuant to written authorization from a competent judicial authority.
By law ISPs face criminal penalties for the material and websites they host, especially if subject matters are “incompatible with morality or public opinion.” The Ministries of Justice, Interior, and Post, Information Technology, and Communication have oversight responsibilities. The law provides sentences of six months to five years in prison and fines for users who do not comply with the law, including the obligation to cooperate with law enforcement authorities against cybercrime.
For a fifth year, the government blocked access to social media sites, including Facebook and Twitter, for several days during nationwide high school examinations. The decision was in response to previous leaks of examination materials, which were posted on social media.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
Academic seminars generally occurred with limited governmental interference. The Ministry of Culture reviewed the content of films before they could be shown, as well as books before importation. The Ministry of Religious Affairs did the same for all religious publications. The law gives authorities broad power to ban books that run counter to the constitution, “the Muslim religion and other religions, national sovereignty and unity, the national identity and cultural values of society, national security and defense concerns, public order concerns, and the dignity of the human being and individual and collective rights.” It further prohibits books that “make apology for colonialism, terrorism, crime, and racism.”
Importers must submit to the ministry the title, author’s name, editor’s name, edition, year, International Standard Book Number, and number of copies to be imported. Importers of books covering the “national movement and the Algerian Revolution” must submit the entire text of the books for review, including a secondary review by the Ministry of the Moudjahidine (veterans of the revolution). The Ministry of Culture can also require a full content review of books on other topics if it chooses. The ministry has 30 days to review the importation application; in the absence of a response after 30 days, the importer may proceed with distribution of the publication. After deciding, the ministry notifies the customs service of the decision to allow or ban the importation of the publication. Appeals may be made to the ministry, with no independent or judicial review provided for in the decree.
A 2017 decree covering religious texts other than the Quran stated, “The content of religious books for import, regardless of format, must not undermine the religious unity of society, the national religious and public order, good morals, fundamental rights and liberties, or the law.” The importer must submit the text and other information, and the ministry must respond within 30 days. A nonresponse after this period is considered a rejection. Religious texts distributed without authorization may be seized and destroyed.
On April 23, authorities sentenced Sufi Muslim academic Said Djabelkheir to three years in prison and a fine of 50,000 dinars ($375) for “offense to the precepts of Islam,” based on his personal Facebook account publications regarding Islamic rituals and theology. Djabelkheir wrote that the sacrifice of sheep predates Islam and denounced child marriage. He said authorities did not inform him or his lawyers ahead of the court proceedings. Djabelkheir appealed the conviction and was free on bail pending the appeal.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
Although the constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly and association, the government severely restricted the exercise of these rights.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
The constitution provides for the right of peaceful assembly, but the government curtailed this right. A ban on demonstrations in Algiers remained in effect. Authorities utilized the ban to prohibit assembly within the city limits. Nationwide, the government required citizens and organizations to obtain permits from the local governor, who is appointed by the national government, before holding public meetings or demonstrations. The government restricted licenses to political parties, NGOs, and other groups to hold indoor rallies or delayed permission until the eve of the event, thereby impeding organizers’ publicity and outreach efforts. The DGSN reported it arrested 10,943 protesters during the year, up from 3,017 protesters arrested in 2020. Of those, authorities interviewed and released 9,900 protesters, typically on the same day as the arrest. Of the remainder, police charged 545, and the remaining 489 were placed in pretrial detention. The Hirak protest movement, which began in 2019, consisted of mass, peaceful protest marches taking place every Tuesday and Friday in many locations throughout the country. The protests paused with the onset of COVID-19 in March 2020.
On February 22 and 26, Hirak marches resumed in cities throughout the country, with thousands of demonstrators returning to the streets to commemorate the movement’s two-year anniversary. Student protests also resumed their weekly Tuesday marches on February 23 in Algiers, but by May they had largely ceased.
On April 3, police arrested 23 Hirak protesters on alleged charges of “holding an unarmed gathering or protest.” The court placed them in pretrial detention on April 5. On April 14, El Harrach prison officials relocated the detainees to the hospital after they engaged in a hunger strike because, they asserted, they were arbitrarily detained.
On April 28, police arrested Kaddour Chouicha, a university professor and vice president of the LADDH, and journalist Jamila Loukil, as they left an Oran court following a hearing on “unarmed assembly” charges.
In May security forces further increased arrests and use of force against Hirak protesters, drawing negative international attention and condemnation from human rights groups. Amnesty International said authorities’ “illegal and constant use of violence…against demonstrators” was unacceptable and called for the government to allow peaceful protests without resorting to force, and for the government to release prisoners of conscience.
On May 5, according to purported official documents leaked on social media, authorities asked the police to intervene – using force, if necessary – to maintain public order during demonstrations. On May 7, Hirakists unexpectedly changed their usual procession route, prompting the Ministry of Interior to issue a communique on May 9 requiring the organizer to provide names, start and stop times, routes, and slogans in advance of marches. When the Hirak protests resumed, some public transportation was not operational on Fridays, which Hirakists claimed was another mechanism the government used to prevent protesters from gathering.
On May 14 and 21, police blocked Hirak protests in Algiers and several other cities and arrested many protesters including journalists, politicians, and academics. The CNLD reported that police arrested more than 800 demonstrators nationwide. Marches took place without incident in Tizi Ouzou and Bejaia, while in Bouira the protest turned violent after police intervened to prevent the march. The Ministry of Interior denied receiving a request for the May 21 Hirak march; however, a group of pro-Hirak lawyers publicized the protest request, which bore signatures from wilaya (state) officials.
On May 21 and May 25, security forces created new checkpoints in locations throughout Algiers to prevent protesters from reaching Hirak rally points or changing their protest routes. Police checked identification documents and individuals who did not reside in Algiers were arrested and taken to various police stations throughout the city. Hotels in Algiers and other major cities continued their practice of refusing to sign rental contracts for meeting spaces with political parties, NGOs, and civil associations without a copy of written authorization from the Ministry of Interior for the proposed gathering. NGOs reported instances of not receiving the written authorization in time to hold planned meetings. NGOs reported that the government threatened hotel and restaurant owners with penalties if they rented rooms to NGOs without official authorization. In most cases the NGOs continued to hold their meetings and police came to the hotels to end the gatherings.
Throughout the year police dispersed unauthorized gatherings or prevented marching groups of protesters from demonstrating. Police typically dispersed protesters shortly after a protest began and arrested and detained organizers for a few hours.
Freedom of Association
The constitution provides for the right of association, but the government restricted this right.
The law’s extensive requirements and uneven enforcement served as major impediments to the development of civil society. The law grants the government wide-ranging oversight of and influence in the day-to-day activities of civil society organizations. It requires national-level civil organizations to apply to the Ministry of Interior for permission to operate. Once registered, organizations must inform the government of their activities, funding sources, and personnel, including notification of personnel changes. The law imposes an additional requirement that associations obtain government preapproval before accepting foreign funds. If organizations fail to provide required information to the government or attempt to operate with or accept foreign funds without authorization, they are subject to fines and individuals may face up to six months’ imprisonment.
According to the law, associations that apply for accreditation are entitled to receive a response within two months for national organizations, 45 days for interregional-level associations, 40 days for provincial-level associations, and 30 days for communal organizations. While the Ministry of Interior oversees the accreditation process for most associations, the president of a local assembly approves applications for communal associations. Although the Ministry of Interior is responsible for authorizing associations, the government stated COVID-19 spurred the ministry to relax registration rules, specifically for health-care charities operating on the local level, as these organizations were better positioned to assist during the pandemic.
The Ministry of Interior may deny a license to or dissolve any group regarded as a threat to the government’s authority or to public order, and on several occasions it failed to grant in an expeditious fashion official recognition to NGOs, associations, religious groups, and political parties. According to the ministry, organizations receive a receipt after submitting their application for accreditation and after the relevant time frame based on the type of association, this slip is legally sufficient for them to begin operating, to open a bank account, and to rent office or event space. The law does not explicitly include this provision. If the application is approved, the ministry issues a final accreditation document.
Many organizations reported they never received a deposit slip and that even with the receipt, it was difficult to conduct necessary administrative tasks without formal accreditation. Other organizations reported they never received any written response to their application request even after calling the ministry and trying to register at local police stations. The ministry maintained that organizations that were refused accreditation or that did not receive a response within the specified period could appeal to the State Council, the administrative court responsible for cases involving the government.
On October 13, an administrative court ruled in favor of the Ministry of Interior’s request to dissolve the Youth Action Rally, a prominent civic association. The Ministry of Interior stated the group’s political activities violated its bylaws, which its leaders denied, contending that authorities targeted the association because of its support for the Hirak movement.
The government issued licenses and subsidies to domestic associations, especially youth, medical, and neighborhood associations. According to the Ministry of Interior, there were 117,801 local and 1,799 regional NGOs registered as of September, including 5,864 new local NGOs and 52 new national NGOs. Unlicensed NGOs remained active, but rarely received government assistance, and citizens at times hesitated to associate with these organizations.
According to the Ministry of Interior, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the government significantly eased local association requirements, giving local organizations the space to operate. The government determined local civil society organizations, specifically health-care-related charities, were better positioned to assist locally than the federal government. The Ministry of Interior relaxed its registration rules, allowing local governments to authorize local associations, resulting in more than 1,000 new local charity associations. National associations must still submit their applications to the Ministry of Interior for authorization.