- Algerian authorities banned foreign media from covering yesterday's release of two convicted leaders of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), a group that was outlawed in 1992 when its party was poised to win parliamentary elections. At least two French news crews were expelled today for ignoring the ban.
According to sources contacted by the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in Algeria, government officials had contacted foreign news outlets in the capital, Algiers, and told them they were barred from covering the release of FIS leaders Ali Belhadj and Abassi Madani.
The two had been sentenced to prison in 1992. Mr Madani had been under house arrest since 1997, while Mr Belhadj was held at a prison in Blida, about 40 kilometres south of Algiers.
On 1 July, the Algerian Communications Ministry contacted the state-run French television stations, 'France 2' and 'France 3', and the private French station 'TF1' - who were in Algiers to cover the return of Air France flights to Algeria - telling the outlets that they were not allowed to cover Mr Madani and Mr Belhadj's release, said a spokesperson for 'France 2'.
The 'France 2' spokesperson said that the three stations managed to circumvent the ban and fed a tape of Mr Belhadj's prison release to their stations in Paris from their hotel.
After the footage aired on French television, police went to the hotel and confiscated the journalists' equipment. The 'TF1' team left the country this morning before the official expulsion order came, and Algerian authorities accompanied the 'France 2' and 'France 3' journalists to the airport today.
Meanwhile, the news agency 'Agence France-Presse' (AFP) reported that the crew of another French station and a Belgian station were also expelled. CPJ however said it was unable to confirm whether these stations were expelled.
- Preventing journalists from covering a newsworthy event is blatant censorship, said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper in a statement today. "We call on Algerian authorities to lift these restrictions against journalists and allow the press to do their job freely."
Also the Paris-based media watchdog group Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) today condemned the Algerian authorities' move. "This ban affecting the entire [foreign] press corps is truly shocking and virtually unprecedented," RSF Secretary-General Robert Ménard said in a statement.
- Only a few regimes have tried to impose a news blackout on a specific event in recent times, he added, citing the arrest of Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma in May 2003 and the SARS epidemic in China in April.
- Warnings issued in telephone calls by the Algerian Communication Ministry and threats to withdraw the accreditation of foreign journalists are crude and archaic methods, Mr Ménard said. "It is illusory for the Algerian authorities to imagine that they can prevent all news of the releases from getting out," he added.
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