Algerian authorities must immediately release journalist Merzoug Touati and drop all charges against him, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On June 12, Algerian police arrested Touati, a reporter for the news website L'Avant-Garde, while he was covering anti-government protests in the city of Béjaïa, according to journalist and press freedom advocate Mustapha Bendjama, who has followed the case and spoke to CPJ via messaging app, and a statement by the National Committee for the Liberation of Detainees, a local human rights group.
On June 13, a state prosecutor charged Touati with inciting an unarmed assembly, distributing publications harmful to national unity, and putting the lives of others in danger by violating COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, according to Bendjama and news reports.
The prosecutor ordered Touati's pretrial detention pending an investigation, Bendjama said.
If convicted on the harming national unity charges alone, Touati could face up to 10 years in prison, according to CPJ research.
"Authorities in Algeria must stop using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to clamp down on press freedom, and instead should use it as a reason to free political prisoners from the country's overcrowded prisons," said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour. "Merzoug Touati must be released immediately, the charges against him dropped, and he should be allowed to report on matters of public interest freely."
Today, a judge at the Béjaïa court denied Touati's appeal for parole, and postponed the next hearing in his case until July 1, according to Bendjama and news reports.
Police arrested at least 20 people at the June 12 protest, but only kept Touati and a few activists in custody, including human rights activist Yanis Adjlia, according to Al-Jazeera.
In May, Algerian authorities blocked L'Avant-Garde's website under a newly passed "false news" law, as CPJ documented at the time. Bendjama told CPJ that L'Avant-Garde, like many independent local news outlets in Algeria, receives foreign funding and therefore the government treats it like a foreign news agency. Journalists working for such outlets are required to have a valid press accreditation to be able to legally report, and Touati does not have that accreditation, Bendjama said.
Touati recently covered issues related to COVID-19 and the anti-government protests that have been taking place throughout the country since February 2019.
He was previously arrested in February 2017 on treason charges for his posts on the now-defunct al-Hogra blog , as CPJ documented at the time. In May 2018, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison, and was released on March 4, 2019, after a judge reduced his sentence to two years served, according to Amnesty International.
CPJ emailed the Algerian Ministry of Interior for comment, but did not receive any response.