Algeria: Release journalist Ihsane El Kadi facing five years on bogus charges

In Arab Countries, International Advocacy Program by CIHRS

Independent journalist Ihsane El Kadi, imprisoned since December 2022 and recently sentenced to five years in prison on bogus charges, should be immediately and unconditionally released, demands the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) ahead of the 18 June appeals verdict in his case.  Dozens of journalists in Algeria have been arrested and/or prosecuted since 2020 as part of the Algerian government’s wider crackdown on the right to free expression.

On 2 April 2023, El Kadi was sentenced to five years in prison by the first instance court of Sidi Mhamed in Algiers, two of which were suspended on charges of receiving foreign funding for “political propaganda” as well as funding that would “harm state security” under the Algerian penal code’s article 95, and article 95 bis, respectively. El Kadi and his defense team boycotted the first trial hearing, citing the absence of fair trial guarantees. The appeals court in Algiers held an appeal hearing on 4 June and the verdict in the case is expected on 18 June.

El Kadi was arrested at his home shortly after midnight on 24 December 2022. The following day, security forces in plainclothes took El Kadi in handcuffs to the shared premises of his two online media outlets, Radio M and Maghreb Emergent, which had been among the very few independent media outlets that had survived state repression in Algeria. They seized all the computers and other material, and sealed the offices.

Several days before his arrest, El Kadi published an article in which he posited that the Algerian army, which plays a prominent role in the nation’s politics, may withhold its support for Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s candidacy in the 2024 presidential elections, given his mixed record.

In the written first instance judgment, which CIHRS reviewed, the court sentenced El Kadi to five years in prison for receiving 25, 000 pounds (approximately 31,000 USD) in three installments in 2020, from his daughter who lives in the UK. As a shareholder in the company Interface Media, which runs the two media outlets Maghreb Emergent and Radio M, she asserted that she sent the money to help her father overcome the economic hardships facing the company, especially during the pandemic. The judgment shows that the investigation was initially launched by the judicial police against Ihsane El Kadi for his work as a journalist and director of Radio M, which, according to the judgment, broadcasts “publications and information harmful to national interests.” The judgment did not specify which acts carried out by El Kadi would constitute political propaganda or undermine national security or harm Algeria’s interests, as per article 95 and article 95 bis under which he was prosecuted.

“Such a brazenly politicized judgment, imposing a heavy sentence on a person without demonstrating any wrongdoing, undoubtedly demonstrates the willingness of Algerian authorities to crush the remaining critical voices in the country,” said Amna Guellali, research director at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.

Both article 95 and article 95 bis of the Algerian Penal Code contravene international human rights law, as they contain a broadly and vaguely worded criminalization of acts that are not clearly defined to allow individuals to reasonably predict whether any of their activities would amount to a crime. The sentencing of El Kadi, which stems from his work as a journalist and director of media outlets, blatantly contradicts the right to free expression.

Article 95 bis of the penal code was among several amendments passed by Algerian authorities in April 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, adding new repressive weapons to an already draconian legislative arsenal. The article imposes up to seven years in jail for anyone who receives funds, donations or benefits from a state, an institution or a person, from inside or outside the country, to harm “state security, stability, normal functioning of state institutions, national unity, territorial integrity, fundamental interests of Algeria, security and public order.” The sentence is doubled if the funds are received in the framework of an organization or association.

In the same judgment, the court ordered the dissolution of the company Interface Media, arguing that it had violated Article 107 of the audiovisual law, which requires prior authorization for any broadcasting media to operate. To obtain licensing, the 2014 law on the audiovisual media imposes several restrictions, including by requiring conformity to stipulations that are open to broad interpretation, such as respecting national unity, societal or national values and principles, national symbols, and public morals or order. The law neither specifies a timeframe for obtaining a license from the Audiovisual Regulatory Authority nor does it allow for legal challenges in the event of delays or rejections of the requests.

Control over the media was further tightened in November 2020 with President Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s issuance of Decree 20-332, which placed restrictions over digital media, including a regime of prior authorization for online platforms to operate.

Algeria is notorious for keeping media in limbo by denying them authorization to operate, thus making them illegal while tolerating their existence only until they cross unwritten “red lines”. In 2021 alone, at least four Algerian television stations were forced to shut down. The authorities shut down Lina TV in August 2021 on the pretext that it had not obtained prior licensing.

The UN Human Rights Committee, in its authoritative interpretation of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of which Algeria is a state party, requested states parties to “avoid imposing onerous licensing conditions and fees on the broadcast media, including on community and commercial stations.”

Prior to his arrest, Ihsane El Kadi has faced prolonged state persecution in retaliation for his work as a journalist. On 10 November 2022, El Kadi was charged with “financing terrorism” after Radio M awarded a prize to Human Rights Defender Zaki Hannache for achievements in investigative journalism.  On 7 June 2022, he was sentenced to six months in prison and a fine of 50,000 dinars ($360) for charges stemming from the publication of an article advocating the inclusion of the Islamic movement Rachad in the Hirak protests.

Other journalists have also faced judicial harassment, prosecution or imprisonment simply for doing their job. Rabah Kareche, a former correspondent for the daily Liberté, was placed in pre-trial detention on 19 April 2021, for having written articles on the situation in southern Algeria, including a report on local populations’ frustration vis-à-vis the new administrative divisions of Algerian territory. He was sentenced on appeal to one year in prison and released on 19 October 2021 after serving his sentence.

In September 2020, Khaled Drareni, correspondent for TV5 Monde and representative of RSF in Algeria, was sentenced to two years in prison on appeal over his reporting on the Hirak protest movement. He was released on 19 February 2021.

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