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

Khaled Drareni, Reporters Without Borders correspondent, was arrested last month on charges related to his coverage of anti-government protests
Algerian protesters carryt Khaled Drareni on their shoulders after he was briefly detained by security forces on 6 March (AFP/File photo)

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, was 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 offence by the media 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. 

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Those protests have now been put on hold amid 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.

Because of a widespread 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, especially as 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 journalist 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-government protests. The government did release more than 5,000 prisoners earlier this week on 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 public 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 to "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 said. 

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