Algiers’ smoke screen of reform

Against the backdrop of popular unrest in the region, Algiers promised political change. Yet, despite concessions, the regime is maintaining its grip on power

Ever since January 2011, when Algerians took to the streets to protest their economic plight and demonstrate their political frustration alongside their neighbours in Tunisia and Egypt, the government has promised political change. But no matter how many new measures are introduced, there is little sign of any real progress.

Following months of talks with opposition figures and civil society members during 2011, the government has introduced new rules on political parties, media freedoms, the right of association and female representation in parliament.

The state of emergency, in place for more than two decades, has also been lifted. The next step involves drawing up a new constitution, which the government promises will redefine the political landscape.

Yet, despite the reform programme being so wide-ranging on paper, the authorities have ensured at every stage that the impact on the ground has been negligible.

Restrictive laws

The lifting of the state of emergency was accompanied by new measures that empower the police to intervene in the most vaguely defined circumstances. A 2001 law prohibiting public gatherings in Algiers was also retained.

On 12 February 2011, just nine days after the government announced it would lift the emergency laws, the few hundred protesters, who turned out in the capital in support of political change, were met with a police response numbering more than 30,000 personnel, according to media reports.

“No steps have been taken or debated to improve the enjoyment of public freedoms, particularly the right to protest or assemble in a public place,” states a report by the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network, published in December 2011. “On the contrary, these activities are prohibited by law in Algiers, and in practice everywhere else in the country.”

The media law that was introduced in January, and was supposed to increase press freedoms, allows for journalists in breach of its dictates to face fines of up to AD500,000 ($6,143) – about double the average annual wage of Algerian nationals and three times the annual minimum wage.

If journalists are unable to pay the fine, they face imprisonment. The government has lifted the state monopoly on broadcast media, bringing the sector into line with a relatively robust independent print media. But all journalists are still subject to wide-ranging restrictions on what they can say.

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Richard Nield is a freelance journalist, photographer and filmmaker covering the Middle East and Africa. In 10 years covering the region, he has been published and broadcast by clients including the BBC, Reuters, Al Jazeera, The Economist, The Financial Times, The Independent and Foreign Policy magazine. He has reported from throughout the region, including Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, South Sudan, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.