ALGIERS – Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has pardoned journalists sentenced to prison for defamation and insulting officials in the first such step since he took office seven years ago, his office said on Wednesday.
The move, to mark World Press Freedom Day, cov
ers reporters convicted of “gross insult to state officials, offending the president of the republic, injuring state institutions, defamation and insult”, said a statement carried by official media.
“This measure, which expresses the constant concern of the head of the state to preserve, consolidate and reinforce the freedom of the press, is an additional pledge for the safeguard of the rights and freedoms in our country.”
None of the journalists have actually been sent to prison despite their sentences — a situation frequently found in cases involving journalists in Algerian courts — and they remain at liberty and are free to work.
As a result, although their sentences are not suspended, the effect of the move is similar to a suspended sentence, with the threat of jail time hanging over the journalists concerned, journalists say.
Algerian journalists say the measure refers to more than 10 colleagues sentenced to jail terms in recent years in what independent media have called a clampdown on free speech.
Local independent media gave the move a guarded welcome.
“It is an action that may be seen as political goodwill to defuse relations between the authorities and the press,” influential newspaper El Watan said in an editorial.
Algerian journalists enjoy more press freedom than in many other Arabic-speaking countries — about 50 titles have sprung up since the sector was liberalised in the early 1990s.
But independent newspapers tend to have strained ties with the government, and international human rights groups have criticised Algeria for using legal action as a means to silence journalists who annoy its leaders.
The government has rejected accusations that it is targeting the media, saying defamation cases brought by the authorities had nothing to do with politics or press freedom.
It was not clear if Bouteflika’s move included editor Mohamed Benchicou, who has been serving two-year jail sentence since June 2004.
Benchicou, whose daily Le Matin has since gone out of business for financial reasons, was convicted of violating a law governing transfer of money abroad. — Reuter