Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has hailed President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's decision to issue a pardon on Algeria's independence day, 5 July 2006, for all journalists convicted of defamation or insulting state institutions, but urged him to carry out reforms.
"President Bouteflika's pardon suggests he would like to make a fresh start, but we call on him to confirm this desire by carrying out real reforms that would take the pressure off journalists," the press freedom organisation said.
"The reforms should include the decriminalisation of press offences so that journalists can work freely, without fear of getting a prison sentence at any moment," RSF continued. "Article 144 of the criminal code, for example, provides for sentences of two to 12 months in prison and often exorbitant fines for insulting or defaming the president. If reforms are not carried out quickly, we could be back to where we were in six months, with dozens of journalists sentenced to imprisonment."
Former "Le Matin" managing editor Mohamed Benchicou, who was himself recently released from prison, told RSF: "This is clearly a welcome move but it is meant to benefit the government rather than the press. It has come late after three years of unprecedented political, police, judicial and fiscal harassment in which seven journalists were imprisoned and 23 others were given prison sentences."
Benchicou added: "The president must establish press freedom in a structural way. This would entail several measures. The authorities would have to stop all this hounding of journalists and the free press. They would also have to allow 'Le Matin' the right to resume publishing and return my passport."
An Algiers court heard 67 cases in a special session on 3 July and either dismissed charges or imposed only token sentences in all cases, according to journalists and lawyers present.
RSF previously condemned a pardon issued by President Bouteflika on World Press Freedom Day on 3 May as, in practice, it benefited no journalist. It applied only to journalists who had been "definitively" convicted and therefore excluded all those who had lodged appeals against their convictions.