ALGIERS (Reuters) - A campaign of murder failed to crush blossoming Algerian journalism in the 1990s, but now civil war has been replaced by an uneasy peace, the country’s press may have lost in liberty what it gained in security.
In a country where secular reporters have been shot dead, beheaded or had their throats slit, press freedom has in recent memory been a matter of life or death.
“Nowadays I can sit and relax in a cafe,” said newspaper editor Omar Belhouchet, who escaped an assassination attempt in 1993. “That wasn’t possible before. Then, we lived in semi-secrecy.”
But journalists say the fledgling independent private press is becoming tamer in its reporting, a trend some put down to attempts by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s supporters to quell criticism of him before a 2009 election at which he may stand.
“The space for freedoms has narrowed compared to the 1990s,” said Mahmoud Belhimer, deputy editor-in-chief of top-selling El Khabar, a daily critical of Algeria’s stagnant private sector and authoritarian bureaucracy. Economic growth of 4.6 percent in 2007 was largely driven by rising prices for oil and gas which account for 98 percent of export revenues.
“There is less enthusiasm and less determination among the journalists, and less aggression in the articles. We are in a phase of regression,” Belhimer told Reuters.
Several reporters have been sentenced to prison for defamation in recent years: none have gone to jail and they remain at work, but the threat remains pending appeals.
Editors say press curbs do damage beyond electoral politics: they help to shore up a strong Algerian tradition of state secrecy, which stifles the creation of a modern market economy able to generate jobs and shore up social stability.
“We’re in a sort of guerrilla struggle with the authorities,” Belhouchet, who edits prestigious French-language daily El Watan, told Reuters: “There are pressures of all sorts. Things today are fairly tense.”
That editors speak of aggression and guerrilla battles stems from their roots. The creation of independent newspapers was made possible when a state monopoly on the press was lifted in 1990, but that coincided with a disastrous experiment in genuine political pluralism.
In 1992, after a military-backed government scrapped elections that a newly created radical Islamist party was set to win, Algeria descended into violence which killed more than 150,000 people.
Fighters of the Armed Islamic Group seeking to overthrow the state targeted secularist journalists, vowing that “those who attack us with the pen shall die by the sword.”
More than 60 journalists and some 20 support staff were killed, including state media employees, and scores of reporters resorted to living under state protection in a hotel, the El Manar in Sidi Fredj near Algiers.
Out of this grew a combative spirit. Dozens of titles sprang up, many of them outspoken, and today there are 65 dailies although broadcasting remains a state monopoly.
Newspapers today sell 2.1 million copies per day among a population of about 33 million: roughly 70 percent are in Arabic and 30 percent in French, with the younger generation preferring Arabic and the middle-aged and elderly, including the ruling elite, preferring French.
Journalists today credit the government with defending their labor rights, after it set up a new legislative framework on pay and conditions in a traditionally poorly paid sector.
Communication Minister Abderrachid Boukerzaza told a news conference in April: “Algeria is making permanent efforts to guarantee press freedom. If you look at the legal framework, you’ll notice that all the legal conditions are there to promote and encourage press freedom in Algeria.”
But despite that framework, editors say press curbs are mounting and human rights groups, including the International Federation of Journalists, criticise Algeria for resorting more frequently to legal action as a means to silence journalists who annoy its leaders.
The government, which denies the charge, has power over the media via a 1992 emergency law, which widened earlier powers enabling it to shut newspapers for harming state security.
It also controls the printing presses and flows of advertising money. Under a 2001 law, journalists can be jailed for up to three years if found guilty of defaming top government and military officials. A 2006 law criminalizes public criticism of the conduct of the security forces during the war.
El Watan’s Belhouchet said since 1992 he has been prosecuted about 150 times. In the latest case, an appeal court upheld a two-month jail term for defamation over a story on a provincial governor. He remains at liberty pending another appeal.
“In the face of this emerging repression, our press is weaker and more alone than ever,” anti-government editor Mohamed Benchicou wrote in a message of support for Belhouchet.
Benchicou himself served two years in jail from 2004 to 2006 for currency exchange violations, in a case his allies said was an excuse to silence his virulent attacks on Bouteflika. The government denied the accusation.
Even compared with a few years ago, journalists say the private press seems to have lost confidence.
In the run-up to a 2004 presidential election, many private dailies attacked the incumbent -- and eventual winner -- Bouteflika as autocratic and out of touch with the people.
Those attacks were believed by press commentators to have been sponsored by senior opponents of Bouteflika, who is now in his second and final term. This time, tough criticism is rare.
Some say the lack of invective reflects a consensus in the shadowy elite that Bouteflika should contest the 2009 polls, which he can only do after changing the constitution to lift term limits on the presidency.
In today’s uneasy peace, journalists feel pressure from both sides: Islamist threats have diminished since the civil war but al Qaeda’s local wing has publicly threatened those who report what it calls the government’s lies about its losses in clashes with the army.
Fearing kidnap or assault by Islamist militants, El Watan security reporter Salima Tlemcani said she limits outdoor leisure pursuits like the beach: “You must be vigilant.”
(Additional reporting by William Maclean)
Editing by William Maclean and Sara Ledwith