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Critics in Paris Decry Crackdown on Algerian Press - 2004-07-06

Critics of recent judicial actions against journalists in Algeria, including jailing of reporters and gagging a satellite television channel, say the actions constitute a serious threat to press freedom in the North African country. The government's encroachment on press freedoms has sparked protests in Algeria and within the sizable Algerian community living in France.

Several hundred protesters gathered in front of the Paris city hall Monday night to hear Algerian intellectuals, journalists and leftist French politicians denounce what they claim is a rollback of press freedom in Algeria. Similar demonstrations have also taken place in Algeria in recent days.

In Paris, several protesters brandished small signs calling on the Algerian government to free journalists Mohamed Benchicou and Hafnaoui Ghoul. Mr. Ghoul was sentenced to two months in prison for defaming a retired Algerian general.

Mr. Benchicou owns Algeria's private Le Matin newspaper. He was sentenced to two years in prison on charges of financial impropriety. But critics believe he's being punished for a book he wrote recently, which was highly critical of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Last week, the government also suspended the activities of the Qatar-based Al Jazeera channel in Algeria on grounds it was reorganizing the work of foreign correspondents. That happened a week after Al Jazeera broadcast a program critical of Algeria's powerful military, and of Mr. Bouteflika national reconciliation policy.

Algeria traditional has one of the feistiest and most independent media in the Arab world. But the go-getting press is now feeling the power of government disapproval.

An Algerian protester in Paris, who identified herself only Yasmina, said she was dismayed at the recent attacks on press freedom in Algeria.

"A journalist cannot be put in jail because of his opinions. Because the liberty, the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press is the beginning of democracy. And it is really the condition for Algeria to become a real democracy," she said.

The Paris-based press watchdog, Reporters Without Borders, also has criticized the attack on press freedom in Algeria.

"We ask the Algerian authorities to suppress the provisions that enable them to imprison journalists in cases of libel for up to a year in prison," said Severine Cazes, the group's spokeswoman. "This is on the side of the authorities. Another big topic would be the liberalization of the radio of television in Algeria, because as you know there is no private radio or television in this country."

But the group says it also wants the Algerian media to adopt higher standards of professionalism and transparency, including making their financial records public.