“Le Pouvoir”: How Corruption, Anti-Riot Forces And Control Of The Media Are Curtailing Freedom In Algeria

On the eighth week of protests against the Algerian establishment known as “Le Pouvoir”, several obstacles remain in the path to democratic freedoms. Whilst protests have been largely peaceful in nature, those of the 12th April saw increased tensions between protestors and police. This follows both an intensification in police response and growing frustration among a minority of those seeking change. The demonstrators -predominantly under the age of 30 – demand freedom, yet governmental corruption, anti-riot forces, and media control have built a wall of repression high enough to stop them from achieving this goal.

National media outlets, reportedly controlled by those close to the government, have had their integrity questioned after failing to report on the first few weeks of demonstrations. Journalists have joined the movement in order to demand for a free press: some have resigned in order to speak out whilst others have been sacked for insinuating support. On the 26th of February, journalists directed their own protest, a “significant moment, in that ordinary journalists were basically saying this is not acceptable”, states James MacDougall, a prominent historian on Algeria. This came after weeks of alleged censorship in which national outlets either did not cover protests at all or were advised to report only official statements. Despite resistance, the credibility of the national press remains seriously damaged. Meanwhile, international coverage has been impeded by undercover police who “crowd in as you interview protestors … to intimidate those who speak out”, according to Orla Guerin, a BBC reporter. This intimidation goes not only for freedom of press but also for freedom of assembly, as a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) – part loudspeaker, part alarm with damagingly high decibel levels – has been used to disperse crowds. “These machines are really dangerous,” asserts Saïd Salhi, Vice-President of the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights (LADDH). “We called out to the government on this subject, especially since … we are facing peaceful protests,” he continues.

Though there are reports that eighty police officers were injured during protests on the 12th April, this has only been used as a justification for the anti-riot police to take more aggressive measures: tear gas grenades, rubber bullets and LRAD. While all demonstrators demand more radical change, a small minority has begun to use more radical tactics, including the throwing of stones and bottles. For the movement to succeed, all those who take part must use the same peaceful means to secure its end. The authorities will use any violence displayed by the protestors as an excuse to retaliate. Depending on violence to gain freedom will only lead to the continuance of the repression that Algerians wish to oust.

On the 1st April, protestors’ demands were answered when President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced his resignation. But protestors have since broadened their demands in order to bring an end to an outdated establishment, which – for many Algerians – has been the only one they have known. Ongoing concerns have only grown fearing that the presidential elections, now postponed to the 4th July, will be far from Bouteflika’s promise of “free”. There are expectations of further corruption, or at the very least that candidates will be selected from within Bouteflika’s inner circle.

Though demonstrations remain largely peaceful in nature, the events of the 12th April have shown that the situation could quickly deteriorate if the authorities lose patience with the protestors, or if the protestors lose patience with the efficacy of the government’s response. Meanwhile, Ahmed Gaïd Salah, Chief of Staff and Vice-Minister of Defence, must be viewed with suspicion as he distances himself from Bouteflika and positions himself on the side of protestors.

Philippa Payne