TUNIS, TUNISIA - Several rights groups including Amnesty International urged Algerian authorities Thursday to free imprisoned journalist Khaled Drareni and end the "targeted harassment of independent media."
Drareni, the founder of the Casbah Tribune website, is a correspondent for French-language channel TV5 Monde and press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
He was arrested March 7 while covering an anti-government protest, accused of "inciting an unarmed gathering and damaging national integrity." He was later released but then rearrested.
"The authorities must immediately and unconditionally release Khaled and end the outrageous prosecution" against him, Heba Morayef, Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa director, said in a statement.
"He is being punished simply for daring to do his journalistic work independently and bravely," she said. "Journalism should never be a punishable crime."
At the end of March, Drareni was ordered to be held in pre-trial detention, and is currently incarcerated in the Kolea prison, west of the capital, Algiers.
Journalist's trial postponed
Another Algerian journalist, Sofiane Merakchi, has been held on remand since last September. A correspondent for Lebanese channel Al Mayadeen, he is accused of "supplying images of protests" to foreign media. His trial has been postponed until May 21.
Ahead of World Press Freedom Day on Sunday, Amnesty called for an end to "the unjustified restrictions imposed on journalists and independent media in Algeria."
This month, authorities have blocked three news websites that have covered Algeria's anti-government protests.
Two of them, Maghreb Emergent and Radio M, are accused of "defamation and insult" against Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune.
A young blogger and supporter of the anti-government "Hirak" protest movement was placed in pre-trial detention in Setif east of Algiers on Monday for sharing memes mocking authorities and religion, according to his lawyer.
"We call on authorities to free the journalists Khaled Drareni, Sofiane Merakchi and the blogger Walid Kechida, and end the blocking of news websites," Wadih Al-Asmar, head of Brussels-based watchdog EuroMed Rights, said in a statement.
Algeria ranks 146th out of 180 countries on RSF's world press freedom index for 2020.
Weekly anti-government protests have rocked the North African country for over a year and stopped only because of the novel coronavirus outbreak, with the authorities banning marches — although the opposition had already called a halt to its street-based activities of its own accord.
According to prisoners' support group CNLD, 51 people are currently detained over links to the Hirak protest movement.
Earlier this week, Amnesty urged the authorities to end "arbitrary prosecutions aimed at silencing Hirak activists and journalists" during the pandemic, and called for the release of detainees.
The rights group said Thursday that authorities were endangering detainees' health, "given the risks of a COVID-19 outbreak in prisons and places of detention."