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Algeria accused of using coronavirus pandemic to 'settle scores' with media

Several rights groups have accused Algerian authorities of taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to “settle scores” with independent journalists covering long-running anti-government protests. 

Reporters Without Borders (RSF), along with 16 other rights groups, released an updated statement on Friday, calling on authorities to release one of their journalists who was arrested on 29 March. 

Khaled Drareni, who also works as a correspondent for TV5 Monde and is an editor at the Casbah Tribune, is charged with “inciting an unarmed gathering and endangering national unity”. 

‘Imprisoning people in the middle of a pandemic is to compound a violation of basic rights with an act of physical endangerment’

– Reporters Without Borders

Since the Algerian constitution states that an offense made by the press cannot be punished by imprisonment, RSF said bringing criminal charges against him in connection to his work “constitutes a violation of the constitution”. 

Drareni has been arrested on several occasions for his coverage of the “Hirak” anti-government protests that have been held in the capital every Friday for more than a year. 

Those protests have now been put on hold due to the rapid spread of the coronavirus.

According to the World Health Organisation, as of Thursday, Algeria had 847 confirmed cases of the virus, and 58 people had died from the disease.

Due to a global lack of testing, the accuracy of those numbers is unclear. 

‘Physical endangerment’

RSF said it is essential journalists like Drareni be released amid the outbreak, since the risks posed by continued imprisonment in overcrowded jails have been exacerbated by the pandemic. 

“Imprisoning people in the middle of a pandemic is to compound a violation of basic rights with an act of physical endangerment,” RSF said.

The statement also called for the immediate release of journalists Sofiane Merakchi, an al-Mayadeen correspondent in Algiers who has been held since 26 September on charges related to taking and publishing images of Algeria’s anti-government protests for foreign media. 

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Last month Amnesty International accused Algerian authorities of initiating a “campaign of arbitrary arrests and prosecutions”, and called for the release of all those imprisoned on charges related to anti-governemnt protests. The did government release more than 5,000 prisoners earlier this week due to coronavirus concerns, but dozens of those deemed to be supporters of the anti-government protest movement have remained in prison. 

In its recent statement, the rights group called on several Algerian offices, including that of President Abdelmajid Tebboune, to immediately intervene and “put a stop to the harassment of independent journalists”.

The group also called on Algeria’s judicial authorities “not allow themselves to be used by parties hostile to freedom and pluralism” by prosecuting Drareni and other journalists.

“We urge Algeria’s political class to adopt a clear position in support of a free, independent and pluralist press, an essential condition for a public democratic debate,” the statement continued. 

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