Algeria accused of rights crackdown ahead of elections

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There is growing criticism of Algeria’s human rights and freedom of expression record days before the presidential election in which Abdelaziz Bouteflika is widely expected to win a fourth term in office.

President Bouteflika is seeking a fourth term in office

In a report published on April 14th, Amnesty International stated that “the Algerian authorities regularly ban and forcibly disperse peaceful protests and have imposed severe restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly.”

The human rights group cites numerous examples of restrictions on civil liberties, including a 2012 law allowing the government to ban organizations seen to threaten principles as vague as “national constants and values” or “morality”.

Amnesty International slammed the three-year ban on public protests in the capital Algiers, which has been forcibly enforced against demonstrators in the run up to this the presidential election on April 16th. Human Rights Watch (HRW) also criticized the crackdown on peaceful protests in March, stressing that it had specifically targeted members of the “Barakat” (“Enough”) movement who opposed a fourth term for Bouteflika.

The bulk of recent criticism has to do with press freedom, with Amnesty International highlighting the closure of the private Al-Atlas TV channel after a raid by security forces on March 12th.

“Attacking a private television station simply because it dared to broadcast a different view is a reprehensible attack on freedom of expression,” Amnesty International researcher Nicola Duckworth said in a statement.

Reacting to this, Madjid Bekkouche, a spokesman for the Bouteflika election team, said “Al-Atlas TV had difficulties paying its transmission fees and its licence was not in order,” replied.

The human rights group gave other examples, including foreign journalists being denied visas to cover the presidential campaign and the wife of a journalist who had covered opposition protests being threatened at gunpoint and scalded with hot water by “three individuals in plain clothes believed to be members of the security forces”.

Amnesty International regretted that Algeria had not granted access to UN human rights experts, such as the special rapporteur on torture, to shed light on such abuses.

Campaign documents used by Bouteflika’s campaign counter that his government has consistently granted licences to new media outlets. “Between 2009 and 2013, the number of daily newspapers rose from 78 to 142,” they say, adding that two laws in favour of freedom of expression were passed under the current President.

“Algerians now have access to numerous private TV channels, which work in the field to reflect the country’s wide diversity,” said Bekkouche.

Amnesty International argues, however, that their licences are temporary and can be revoked by the authorities on a whim.

H’mida Ayachi, the head of Algérie News says money can also be used to silence critical media. Government agencies, who provide the majority of advertising revenues in Algeria, cancelled all contracts with his newspaper recently. “This has happened because our paper gave space to certain opposition groups, including the Barakat movement,” says Ayachi. “We’re being punished for this. The President’s supporters are clearly set on muzzling the opposition.”

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