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Associations and InstitutionsAnnual 

64th IFLA Conference Logo

   64th IFLA General Conference
   August 16 - August 21, 1998


Code Number: 173-129-E
Division Number: -
Professional Group: Guest Lecture III
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 129.
Simultaneous Interpretation:   Yes

Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in the Conflict Situation in Algeria

Ahmed Ancer
Journaliste algérien



Algeria has been living in an unstable situation since 5 October 1988. The political struggles opposing the two tendencies sharing power at the time within the single ruling party (the FLN) became open conflict when each of the two competing factions resorted to the involvement of the population. At least 40 cities, including the largest in the country, were the scene of violent riots for two weeks. On 23 February 1989, these events led to a new constitutional system establishing political pluralism, as well as fundamental liberties.

But the new constitution was violated less than a year after its adoption. In September 1989, Chadli Benjedid, the president of the republic, tempted by a regime on the Sudanese model, recognized the creation of Islamist parties. Instability and violence were then given new impetus. Rejecting the rules of democracy, the fundamentalists, aided by the conservatives in the FLN and certain Gulf countries, launched into the conquest of power, with the objective of eliminating from the political scene all those who did not share their world view.

The army, basing its intervention on the fears of the middle classes, provoked by the hegemonic inclinations of the Islamists, seized power following the parliamentary elections of December 1991 which the Islamic Front (FIS) won by a wide margin. The coup d'etat generalized the conflicts which became armed conflicts beginning in 1992. The latter have continued until today. How does information function under these circumstances of conflict? How do political and social figures exercise their rights to freedom of expression and access to information in this context of confrontation which has now covered an entire decade? What has been the fate of information professionals who have, of course, found themselves involved in the convulsions and the transformation of society? To answer these questions, I feel it necessary to distinguish two periods.

The first period of this conflict, that is to say from October 1988 to December 1991, was strictly political. It can be thought of as a break with the regime of a single political party. Since 1962, the latter had reigned as undisputed master, tolerating no form of protest. Until October 1988, information was, in general, dominated by propaganda, and the population was entitled only to news that the country's rulers were willing to allow. All the media belonged to the state and functioned under very strict government control. Writers, including militants of the party in power and even scientists, were obliged to leave the country or to have their works published abroad.

The second period was marked by the birth of public opinion following the adoption of the constitution of February 1989. The aspect which merits closest attention is the appearance of an independent press in 1990. Private newspapers have indeed been a significant tool for the promotion and defense of fundamental freedoms (opinion, expression, pluralism, freedom of conscience). During the last phase of the country's history, the media have become a subject of confrontation among the leading figures of the political scene. Access to information depends not only on the goodwill of the rulers of the country. Though journalists have been freed from strict supervision, evolution is not proceeding without problems.

Political Power versus Memory

The events of October 1988 are the expression of an exacerbation of the crisis of the single-party regime. They also represent the most extreme limits of the totalitarian logic applied by the FLN and the army. The media were all quite simply paralyzed. Censorship, always very strict, became total when the signs of the movement began to appear. No newspaper devoted even a paragraph to the persistent rumor that had been spreading for a fortnight to the effect that a general strike was to be launched throughout the country. One finds no trace of information on the arrests of numerous militants of the Socialist Avant Garde Party (the PAGS, of communist sympathies) who had been kidnapped from their houses at night and placed in solitary confinement a week earlier (beginning 27 September).

The student wishing to do research, the journalist wanting to go back over the events several years later, the historian or any other intellectual interested in this short but turbulent period in the history of Algeria will have to conduct their investigations with help from sources other than the press coverage available during the public disturbances. Nothing in press articles disseminated during these two weeks other than official communiqués made public by military command can be found.

Moreover, any search for films in television archives showing the riots as they actually happened will be made in vain. When any such films are shown, everyone will see that the latter were taken with the aid of helicopters by specialists of the security forces who concentrated only on the vandalism and the destruction in which the young rioters indulged. Nor will any photos be found. These were arbitrarily recovered from the holdings of the API (press and information agency) specialized in photo reporting. This agency disappeared several years later. Access to the photos it left behind is very difficult to obtain.

The journalists of the French language government daily El Moudjahid, in a meeting on Saturday, 15 October, drew up a bitter report on the absence of information during those troubled days: "Among the repercussions of the recent dramatic events our country has been deplored and experienced as humiliating by the professionals in the field."1 The journalists of all the media did indeed go out onto the sites of all the confrontations and many, reacting in accordance with the standards of their profession, came back to their editorial offices with articles, but none of them were published.

The persons responsible for the media, always appointed by the authorities and often very zealous, could print only official bulletins exhorting calm and insisting on the control of the situation by the police force. Algerians, like observers of the Algerian scene for that matter, had no choice but to follow the evolution of events through press communications or information reported by foreign radio and television stations, and supplied mainly by the Agence France Presse (AFP).

It was moreover to these foreign media that the ministers and other leaders of the time turned to express themselves and to attempt to exert an influence on the facts. It was only on the sixth day of the riots (10 October) that about 100 journalists were able to pull themselves together and organize a meeting in the centre of Algiers, of which the outcome was the adoption of the first unofficial declaration on what was happening in the country. The text, released by the AFP, informed public opinion that the journalists were "forbidden to give objective information on the facts and events that the country has experienced" and denounced "the biased use made of the national media in these grave circumstances, in disregard of all professional ethics and of the citizen?s basic right to information." After the permanent representatives of the AFP, who had covered the development of the conflicts with great courage, it was the movement of the Algerian Journalists (MJA), an independent and very combative organization which had appeared on the scene eight months earlier, that thus dared to speak out to denounce publicly the bloodshed for which the government and security forces were responsible.

To reconstitute the unfolding of these tragic events, the investigator will have to have recourse to the material published outside the official means of information: the archives of the PAGS, those of the hospitals, if the latter were not seized and destroyed by the security forces, the few declarations of the MJA, and the eye-witness accounts of citizens, because the press will be but of little use in this precise case. The committee for mobilization against torture has done useful work in this respect by publishing "The October Black Book", which contains numerous very detailed accounts in the practice of torture.

Access to Information, A Battle Never Won

At the end of the month of October 1988, 500 journalists from Algiers, as well as a large number of artists writers and other intellectuals, took part in a meeting organized by the Algerian League for the Rights of Man (LADH) and the Movement of Algerian Journalists to draw up a report on "the inadequacies and abuses of information." This occasion was one of a very long series of actions carried out all through the year 1988 by journalists demanding more freedom of expression. The events of October fortified them in their demands. The new constitution, adopted on 23 February 1989, sanctions freedom of expression. It was enforced by a more liberal law on information, adopted by the parliament (The National Popular Assembly) in April l990. Even if the latter is profusely criticized by information professionals, it nevertheless constitutes considerable evolution in relation to the preceding legislation. Under its terms, political parties, first of all, then groups of journalists can establish publications independent of the government, thus marking the birth of public opinion, of freedom of the press and of expression.

Nevertheless, the troubles of the advocates of the fundamental freedoms were not yet over. The political climate again deteriorated seriously following the first local elections in June 1990 and the legislative elections in December 1991. The Islamists, who had reinforced their position, violently demonstrated their rejection of democracy and of all its corollaries. A part of the military hierarchy was also hostile to the process of democratization. The circulation of information, freedom of the press and of expression therefore became one of the most important stakes at a time when political conflict was turning into armed confrontation.

The Word against the Sword

Indeed, the year 1992 opened up one of the most terrible periods for Algerian journalists, who found themselves caught in a dilemma. The Islamists drew up a list of the men and women of the media, promising them that they would "be put to the sword", and the authorities opened the doors of the prisons to them following the publication of any article displeasing to persons of consequence in the government.

We have reached this point because the two opposing forces dominating Algerian society, the Islamists, who intend to set up a theocracy, and those in power, who dream of perpetuating totalitarianism, see in the fundamental freedoms (freedom of thought, of belief, of the press, of expression) a serious threat to the hegemonic plans they are preparing for Algeria. In five years, nearly 80 persons employed by the media, among them 60 journalists, have been assassinated by the Islamists, and three have been reported missing (hope of finding them alive has been abandoned). One point remains to be clarified on this score: journalists have not been the only professional category to serve as targets for the Islamists. All classes of society have suffered from the action of the armed FIS groups, who have carried out a real policy of purification of the intellectual, scientific and technical elite by cutting the throats of hundreds of teachers, men of culture, doctors, or trained personnel in the evident aim of emptying the country of its vital forces and consequently of its capacities for thought and resistance.

The idea of democracy and of willingness to embrace other cultures have in fact been put forward by minority groups in the society which are found among this elite. A great debate touching on all aspects of life and thought opened following the popular revolt on 5 October 1988 and led to a first result, limited certainly, but encouraging: the constitution of 23 February 1989 contained provisions favorable to the development of freedom. It will be noted for the sake of example that never had the question of secularism been brought up openly in public until the beginning of the '90s. The new constitution devotes no provision to it, but the debate has nevertheless taken place, thanks to the emergence of the private press, which has opened its columns to points of view dealing with questions considered taboo until then. When this press, a medium par excellence for the promotion of the fundamental liberties began to become a reality beginning in the year 1991, the conservative movements made up, on one hand, by broad fringes of the former single party, the National Liberation Front (FLN) and on the other hand, by the Islamic sphere of influence, grew fearful of such an evolution, and attacks on intellectuals made their appearance. The aims of the conservative circles were partly attained, since it is estimated that some 500,000 Algerians have left the country. It should be pointed out that this forced exile has mainly affected the elite. Today, universities, hospitals, the press and numerous other sectors suffer from a deficit of managerial personnel, the consequences of which are grievous.

Concerning the press more specifically, the Islamists accuse it of being vassals of the government, They began by exerting psychological pressure on the editorial offices: frequent telephone calls, abundant mail containing threatening messages addressed to specific individuals or collectively labelled, and, finally, circulation of lists of journalists condemned to death. On 17 May 1993, a commando composed of three terrorists opened fire on Omar Belhouchet, the director of the private daily El Watan, but failed in its attempted assassination. Ten days later the writer-journalist Tahar Djaout, editor of Ruptures, a weekly, was struck down by two bullets in the head; he died on 2 June after a week-long coma. The series was now open; it would be very long, and the death tolls heavier from year to year: 9 in 1993, 18 in 1994, 25 in 1995 and 8 in 1996. The assassinations, concentrated first in Algiers, were not long in bringing down the correspondents of the media in Algiers, as well as the journalists of the regional newspapers. Furthermore, other categories of media workers were also targeted: more than 20 victims between 1993 and 1997, not counting the wounded. Two invasions of media premises were also recorded: Hebdo, liberated by means of handguns, and the press building of the Maison de la Presse, several of which were destroyed, not to speak of the three journalists of the Soir d'Algerie, who were killed instantly. The marks left by these traumatic experiences are deep. Merzak Baktache, an Arabic-speaking writer-journalist, was confined to bed for long months, his jaw fractured by the bullet that had gone through the nape of his neck. The shock experienced by Belhouchet caused a severe illness. Kitoun, the director of the Indépendant, a daily, finally went into exile, his body marked by several scars caused by the bullets of Islamists.

If the Islamists have not hesitated to have recourse to a murderous radicalism, the authorities on their side have done nothing to spare the same press. The government has had an ambivalent attitude towards the independent press. It needed that press to give a favorable image of itself on the outside and even wanted to subjugate it in order to make of it a profession at its disposal. At least 45 journalists, some of whom were subjected to brutal treatment, have already been put in prison for periods ranging from 24 hours to several months. Since the summer of 1992, privately-owned newspapers have been facing extraordinary adversity almost daily (intimidation, economic and financial pressure, legal harassment, suspensions, state monopoly on printing presses, scathing speeches given by a number of successive governments). It is easy to understand why a great number of journalists have gone into exile, preferring to live an unsatisfactory life abroad rather than continue to deal with such a difficult situation.

Those who have remained on the spot have put up a fierce resistance. It is clear that the conditions for practice of the information profession are more difficult than during the years 1990 and 1991. Journalists cannot, for example, go out to cover stories in all parts of the country, because the risks are too great. The professional who falls into the hands of armed Islamists is sure to be a dead man. Moreover, it is not easy to move about freely because of the attitude of the police, who tolerates no media on the scene of operations. On the level of regulations, the authorities have provided themselves with often anti-constitutional texts which allow them to muzzle the press in case the publications are displeasing to the regime. The government imposed an imprimatur from 1993 to 1997 to control newspapers as they came off the presses, as it used its monopoly on advertising and on the importing of papers as a means of pressure on, and often blackmail of, publications.

Libraries in Algeria

In regard to the subject which is of foremost interest to you today, that is to say, the situation of librarians, I shall say only say a few words. They are concerned in the same way as the press or publishing by the state in which freedom is exercised. The conflict which Algeria is experiencing now is present in different ways according to whether we are talking about the first or the second of the periods I alluded to. Until 1989, short of investigation work and gathering of information among the citizens themselves, associations, and political parties, Algerian libraries have little to offer on these beginnings of the conflict.

The roots of the evil in fact go much deeper: the situation of archives and libraries has never been good. The legacy of colonization is rather meagre because, until the middle of the '50s, the colonial authorities considered that Algerians had no need for instruction. They consequently kept the doors of the schools closed to the masses of Muslims. At the beginning of the university year in 1962-1963, the Algerian university had only 2800 registrants. The establishment of libraries was thus limited to cities with a high concentration of Europeans, and their collections were intended exclusively to fulfil the needs of the colonial system.

After independence, the Algerian rulers took insufficient interest and even, in some cases, no interest at all in libraries, all the less so as local administration was taken over by the single party. From this time on, the FLN, not being favorable to the elevation of the cultural level of the population, a slow but steady decline decreased the existing cultural heritage even more; the buildings were no longer maintained, and the collections were neglected. In numerous cases, they were destroyed. The community libraries of the smallest towns, which no longer have financial means nor personnel, receive, more often than not, only the propaganda publications of the party or the bindings of official speeches. Indeed, all cultural sectors have been affected by behavior little concerned with the preservation of the collective memory of the Algerian people. Churches, synagogues, valuable buildings have been pulled down or neglected, and others have been subjected to transformations showing little respect for the country's history.

Only the country's large metropolitan centres have managed, with great difficulty, to maintain their more important libraries in a functional state. Several positive aspects of the '70s can nevertheless be pointed out. In the universities, particularly at the instance of Mohamed Seddik Benyahia, the minister of higher education, the library sector was conscientiously dealt with. The university opened up to the training of librarians with the creation of a library science programme, and great efforts were made to improve the collections.

In the countryside, agrarian reform was accompanied by a programme to construct 1000 villages, and in each one a multi-purpose cultural centre, including at least a reading room, was provided for. This programme, which, for the first time in centuries, took the countryside into consideration, was abandoned in the early '80s, immediately upon the death of its initiator President Boumédiène, It should be pointed out, however, that if the Boumédiène regime originated positive programmes such as widespread public schooling, support prices for books, financing of cultural activity, etc., it permitted no freedom of expression or of access to information. The results of its action has had little impact, freedom being the basis for all creativity and all cultural enrichment.

Beginning in 1980 at the time when oil revenues had gone up considerably, the Algerian regime abandoned all measures of support for the promotion of culture, all the while tightening its hold on the fundamental liberties. The few gains made by the university were to be rapidly lost. There would even be destructive actions to bear witness to. The Political Science Institute of the central university of Algiers once had very good, well-stocked libraries at its disposal, which functioned according to professional standards. They are now but the shadows of their former selves. This is no exception; hundreds of Algerian libraries are now in a deplorable state. All these institutions, whether they be public, school or university libraries, suffer from the lack of money, because culture, science and training have not been among the preoccupations of the successive regimes of the last two decades. Finally, I should like to make it clear that the situation of Algerian libraries has not improved during these last years. The conclusion remains the same: a bad situation.


  1. Joint statement by the journalists of El Moudjahid, 15 October 1988 (author's papers).