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07ALGIERS913 2007-06-28 09:48:00 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Algiers
Cable title:  

MEDIA, POLITICAL PARTIES, LAWYERS AND OFFICIALS ON

Tags:   PHUM PGOV SOCI AG 
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1. (C) SUMMARY: In a series of meetings June 9-10 with DRL
DAS Barks-Ruggles, Algerian media, government and political
party representatives and members of the legal community gave
their views on press freedom and Algeria's defamation laws.
Journalists and lawyers said freedom of expression in Algeria
is limited and, in some ways, increasingly so, and called for
the reform of the country's defamation laws. Government
representatives said defamation laws were being reexamined.
END SUMMARY.

JOURNALISTS ON PRESS FREEDOM


--------------------------





2. (U) In a meeting with DRL DAS Barks-Ruggles, members of
the Algerian National Journalist's Union (SNJ) and the local
coordinator for the Algerian chapter of the International
Federation of Journalists (FIJ) said the GOA exerted
political control over Algeria's independent press through
several means. These include provisions in the penal code
criminalizing defamation, the absence of a baseline guarantee
of social benefits and professional standards for
journalists, and government control of newspaper advertising
funds and the union's operating budget. In something of a
contradiction, union members also lamented the lack of
government investment in developing Algeria's independent
press.



3. (C) FIJ coordinator Nadir Bensebba presented DAS
Barks-Ruggles with a proposal articulating baseline social
benefit guarantees. The SNJ and FIJ drafted the proposal in
coordination with the ministries of communication and labor.
(Note: On June 17, the Minister of Communication said in an
interview that new social benefit guarantees for journalists
would soon be made public.) The SNJ and FIJ representatives
believe these guarantees will bolster press freedom, not only
by providing better working conditions for journalists but
also by setting clear guidelines that will help the industry
self-regulate, an important step in working towards
decriminalizing defamation. DAS Barks-Ruggles expressed USG
support for decriminalizing defamation and explained that the
new Defending the Defenders fund might be used to assist with
legal costs of journalists being harassed through defamation
lawsuits.

HUMAN RIGHTS LAWYERS' VIEW


--------------------------





4. (C) Human rights lawyers Fatma Benbraham, Mostefa
Bouchachi, Khaled Bourayou and Si Mohamed Tahri told us that
Algeria's political space is restricted. In spite of that,
Tahri cited widespread media coverage of the recent Khalifa
Bank scandal to assert there were outlets for expression in
Algeria. Bourayou concurred and said he was equally
impressed with the media's coverage, which included open
indictments of government officials. Addressing defamation,
Benbraham said it should be decriminalized and that truth,
not perceived offense, should be the criterion by which
defamation cases are brought and decided. (Comment: This is
a critical issue in discussing press freedom. The recent
conviction for defamation of a journalist and editor from the
Arabic-language daily Echourouk el-Youmi for articles widely
believed to be accurate about Libyan leader Moammar Kaddafi
highlights that truth is not the deciding factor in these
cases. While the journalists received suspended sentences
and reduced fines, the prosecutor has appealed this case to
Algeria's supreme court. End comment.)

THE GOVERNMENT VIEW


--------------------------





5. (C) Ministry of Justice Secretary General Messaoud
Boufercha maintained that individuals were the driving force
behind defamation charges brought against journalists, not
the Justice Ministry. While asserting that journalists
needed to develop a code of conduct, he admitted that the
Algerian government was examining its defamation laws "with a
view to making them more applicable to today's environment."
(Comment: When pressed, he declined to engage on whether such
reforms would include decriminalizing defamation. End
Comment.) He also asserted it was "not possible" that
Algerian colonial law could be used to prosecute bloggers or
others for religious defamation, as happened recently in
Egypt.



6. (C) Farouk Ksentini, president of the government's

National Commission for the Promotion and Protection of Human
Rights, told us that Algeria was engaged in a discussion on
the decriminalization of defamation because the laws
currently used were old and were not specifically written to
address the media.

THE VIEW FROM POLITICAL PARTIES


--------------------------





7. (C) National Secretary in charge of Communications of the
Union for Democracy and the Republic (UDR) Mohamed Arezki
Boumendil described Algeria's electronic media, which is
entirely state-owned, as very restricted and added that
television journalists risked losing their jobs if they
featured stories on his opposition party or on the Rally for
Culture and Democracy (RCD). He also said a lack of
professionalism among Algerian journalists had resulted in
journalists trying to "out-bid" each other in order to write
the most attention-grabbing stories. Ruling National
Liberation Front (FLN) parliamentarian Farida Illmi countered
that journalists should be more responsible in their
reporting and that their criticism of individuals should "not
be excessive."

COMMENT


--------------------------





8. (C) Issues such as using criminal defamation to control
the media are well documented (reftel) and we continue to
engage on this subject with both journalists and the
government. Some of the journalist union members' complaints
reflect a lingering socialist mind-set prevalent among many
Algerians, who believe the GOA should subsidize the media to
(artificially) support smaller papers. The idea that true
editorial independence rests on financial independence has
not won complete acceptance. Papers that understand this,
such as El Khabar, El Watan, and increasingly Echourouk
el-Youmi, enjoy greater financial freedom and, consequently,
greater editorial independence. Privatization of the
electronic media remains critical to advancing media freedom
and decreasing the popularity of pan-Arab satellite TV
channels that carry a more extreme message.



9. (U) This cable has been cleared by DAS Barks-Ruggles.
FORD