Despite disputes around the new Media Law in Algeria, president Abdelmadjid Tebboune signed the new legislation into effect, and it was published in the Official Gazette on August 29.
The draft law had stirred widespread objection and controversy in Algeria over the past few months, causing disagreements between the lower and upper chambers of parliament – that is, respectively, the People’s National Assembly, whose members are elected directly by the people, and the Council of the Nation, whose members are elected indirectly by local councils, with one-third being appointed by the president. A joint parliamentary committee representing the two chambers was formed to resolve the crisis.
The purpose of the new Media Law in Algeria is to reorganize the media sector according to rules that consider the many developments the country and the sector have witnessed.
However, some question the extent to which this law protects journalists. In fact, only two days before the law was passed, the government issued prison sentences against a journalist, and a researcher and his father for their social media posts.
According to professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Algiers Tawfiq Bou Qaida, these practices show that “although the Constitution bans the imprisonment of journalists, many have been jailed because of what they have written in the media.” Bou Qaida told SMEX that the issue of freedoms in Algeria is not limited to the presence or absence of legal texts: “What does the new Algerian Media Law bring to the table? Will it protect journalists?”
Another oversight authority
In the new law, legislators have expanded the powers of the Audiovisual Regulatory Authority, which monitors audiovisual programs and checks their compliance with the law.
This authority, which was established by virtue of a 2014 law and whose members are mostly appointed by the President of the Republic, has been accused of exercising repressive control in the place of the judiciary. According to the new Media Law, the powers of the Audiovisual Regulatory Authority now include “controlling and monitoring online audiovisual telecommunications services” and “ensuring professional journalism practices that strike a balance between freedom of the press and professional responsibility.”
The new law introduces a permit system for founding newspapers and launching websites. Article 13 grants the Audiovisual Regulatory Authority more powers to control print and digital media. In addition, the law requires forming a Supreme Council for Journalistic Morals and Ethics comprising 12 members, half of whom are appointed by the president while the rest are elected by journalists and publishers. The role of the Supreme Council would include drafting a Code of Ethics and Morals for journalists and addressing violations.
Bou Qaida believes that enabling the president to appoint half the Council’s members and other bodies, where previously they were elected by professionals from the journalism industry, “will place the Council and the bodies under the influence of the executive branch, allowing the latter to punish any journalist and media outlet.”
Ammar Sheriti, Acting President of the National Council of Algerian Journalists, told SMEX that “the formation of a new oversight authority for print and digital media and the adoption of the permit system are positive steps.” According to Sheriti, digital media outlets “have been operating without any legal rules to regulate their work.”
Wider scope of control
The new law expands the media activities falling within its scope. According to Article 2, it now controls “the publication of all news, images, and opinions and the dissemination of any events, messages, ideas, knowledge, and information via any media, be it print, digital or audiovisual, addressed to the general public or to specific segments thereof.” Therefore, the new law not only covers media activities but also all types of discourse regardless of where they are published.
To offer any type of audiovisual services, such as cable, terrestrial, satellite TV broadcasting, and internet-based services, a permit is required from the Minister of Communications. The only exception is for public sector services.
Consequently, the classification of “media publishing” now applies to anyone publishing news on any platform, including bloggers and social media activists. “This will allow authorities to censor people publishing any sort of content, which restricts not only the freedom of the press but also intellectual freedom,” Bou Qaida added.
The new law has many significant shortcomings. According to Sheriti, the Acting President of the National Council of Algerian Journalists, these include the administration’s non-commitment to responding to journalists’ requests to obtain accreditation to work for foreign media outlets within a specific deadline (Article 22), as well as imposing personal penalties on journalists instead of the media outlet supervising the published materials (Article 47).
In addition, the law prohibits Algerians with dual nationalities from establishing media outlets. Article 4 limits the practice of media activities within the country to “people holding Algerian nationality exclusively, legal persons subject to Algerian law whose capital is owned by natural persons holding Algerian nationality exclusively, and legal persons subject to Algerian law whose shareholders or partners hold Algerian nationality exclusively.”
Bou Qaida describes this Article as “unconstitutional.” “The Constitution does not discriminate between Algerian citizens based on sex, place of birth, or even the other nationalities they may hold,” he added.
Article 50 of the new law punishes “any person working in Algeria for a media outlet subject to a foreign law without obtaining the necessary accreditation.” Algerian journalist and activist Marzouk Touati, founder of Elhogra.com news website, believes that this represents “a significant blow to independent journalists working for foreign media outlets, especially freelancers and those performing on-demand and irregular work.”
“This article will eradicate this type of journalistic work in Algeria. It is inconceivable for a journalist to submit an application to the ministry every time they receive a job opportunity and wait for months to receive their accreditation,” Touati explained to SMEX.
Restricting how journalists obtain sources
In addition to establishing the Supreme Council for Journalistic Morals and Ethics according to Article 34, Touati stresses that “Article 35 directly restricts the freedom of the press and the freedom of expression more generally.”
“The law includes ambiguous terms, as in Chapter II related to biased news (Article 35). Who decides whether a news story is biased or not?” he added.
Article 47 of the new Media Law imposes fines on journalists and subjects them to the Penal Code rather than punishing the institution they work for. Moreover, Articles 48, 49, and 50 impose several prohibitions, such as “insults” against the heads of foreign countries and diplomatic missions. They also punish media outlets that refuse to publish corrections and journalists for working with foreign media outlets without accreditation.
While Article 31 of the new Media Law requires public authorities and institutions to “ensure journalists’ right to access information,” Article 32 makes several exceptions to this right, including the state’s security and sovereignty, children’s rights, “undermining women’s honor,” infringing upon people’s private lives, etc.
Article 35 also weakens investigative journalism and whistleblowing as it criminalizes “the use of illicit and corrupt means to access information, images and documents.”
“While journalists protect their sources at all costs, the law forces them to reveal their sources to the judiciary. For many people, especially whistleblowers, this undermines Algerian journalists’ trustworthiness, reliability, and credibility. The authorities often force journalists to reveal their sources in Algeria to punish those sources and accuse them of breach of trust and leaking information,” Touati warned.
As for the protection of journalists, Article 25 of the law states that “journalists enjoy legal protection against all forms of violence, defamation, insults or threats during the performance of their duties or because of such performance.” Article 51 also punishes any person who insults journalists during the performance of their duties, while Article 52 punishes media outlets that do not offer journalists life insurance policies as required in Article 30 of the same law. The Media Law also requires media outlets to “continuously develop and enhance journalists’ knowledge” (Article 31).
According to Sheriti, the National Council of Algerian Journalists considers that “the new Media Law reinforces the protection of journalists against violence and insults during the performance of their duties and within media outlets in case they change their editorial policies or make significant changes to the media content produced by the journalist.”
In an interview with SMEX, the President of the Press Publishers Syndicate Riad Houili said that “overall, the law introduces rules for the professional, responsible and free exercise of journalism. It assigns ethical and legal responsibilities to journalists, media outlets, and the government.”
According to Houili, this is due to “the legal vacuum of the previous era, which caused serious problems to journalists amid the lack of a legal framework that defines the rights and obligations of both the journalist and the government.”
Legal experts are waiting for the issuance of the executive regulations of the new Media Law to make a comprehensive assessment and determine the extent to which the law respects and facilitates the work of journalists in Algeria.
Bou Qaida concludes by saying, “Overall, the issue of freedoms in Algeria is one of political will. The government does not see the press as the Fourth Estate but rather as a tool for political propaganda. Those who do not subscribe to this view are punished under the Penal Code, the Law on Speculation, and other laws.”
Main image from AFP.