Algeria using virus to ‘settle scores’, says media watchdog

Cars drive through the usual site of weekly protests which have been suspended due to the coronavirus in Algeria last month. (AP pic)

TUNIS: Reporters Without Borders has accused Algeria’s government of taking advantage of the coronavirus epidemic to “settle scores” with independent journalists, including those covering long-running anti-government protests.

In a statement co-signed with Algerian NGOs, the watchdog called on Thursday for the immediate release of its correspondent Khaled Drareni, who has been in pre-trial detention since March 29 on a charge of inciting an unarmed gathering and endangering national unity.

Drareni has been arrested several times for covering the “Hirak” anti-government protests held in the capital Algiers every Friday since February 2019.

Imprisoning people during a pandemic is “an act of physical endangerment”, RSF said, accusing the government of “taking advantage of the coronavirus epidemic to settle scores with independent journalism”.

The statement also called for the immediate release of journalists Belkacem Djir and Sofiane Merakchi.

Merakchi, a correspondent for Lebanese TV channel Al-Mayadeen, has been in jail since Sept 26 and is accused of “concealing equipment” and providing images of the protests to Al-Jazeera and other foreign media.

The reasons for Djir’s imprisonment are unknown.

In early March, justice minister Belkacem Zeghmati said Djir and Merakchi were both being prosecuted for “common law acts”, without giving details.

President Abdelmadjid Tebboune pardoned 5,037 prisoners on Wednesday, but the amnesty was not extended to the dozens of supporters of the anti-government protest movement.

Algeria has reported 986 cases of the Covid-19 disease and 83 deaths.