Algeria tightens state control over independent online media

Decree requires Algerian websites to be based in the country and obtain state licences

FILE - In this Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019 file photo, Algerian president Abdelmadjid Tebboune delivers a speech during an inauguration ceremony in the presidential palace, in Algiers, Algeria. Still recovering from COVID-19, Algeria's president suddenly reappeared Sunday Dec. 13, 2020, after nearly two months out of the public eye, saying in a video message that it may still be several more weeks before he is fit enough to return to his North African country. (AP Photo/Toufik Doudou, File)

Algeria has announced tighter state controls over online media, sparking alarm in the North African country, whose pro-democracy movement is under heightened pressure from the government.

President Abdelmadjid Tebboune's government, already accused of stifling free speech, this month published a new decree regulating electronic media in the online Official Gazette.

Among other things, it will force web-based Algerian media outlets to be based within the country and demand that they inform authorities of any "illegal content".

The new rules aim to combat "the misuse of this type of modern media" and the spread of "rumours, fake news and fake videos", said Communications Minister Ammar Belhimer.

The decree, which the minister – a former journalist – argues will protect Algeria and its armed forces against malicious attacks, has been decried by media professionals.

It amounts to "an absurd ban on an independent electronic press – this is another bad signal", journalist Said Djaafer wrote in an editorial on the website 24HDZ.

Online media has so far been "a free space that is technically and economically beyond the control of the authorities", said Hamdi Baala, a journalist at the Twala news site.

"With this decree, they want to get control over it."

The new rules, to be enforced over the next 12 months, come at a time when the Algerian government has put on trial or jailed a activists and journalists associated with the pro-democracy Hirak movement.

Hirak's mass demonstrations broke out early last year and forced long-time president Abdelaziz Bouteflika from power in April 2019.

They continued after that, demanding a far more sweeping overhaul of a rigid political system in place since independence from France in 1962, but ground to a halt as the coronavirus pandemic struck.

Mr Tebboune, in power since December 2019, has sought ostensibly to reach out to the Hirak movement, even as the regime has tightened the screws.

Online restrictions are nothing new for Algeria's 22 million internet users.

The site TSA, or All About Algeria, has been repeatedly blocked since 2017, and over the past year the state has censored sites including Radio M, Maghreb Emergent, Interlignes and Casbah Tribune.

The new online media decree would make state control far more systematic, including by requiring all online media to obtain a licence to operate.

Two new regulatory authorities are to be set up, one in charge of the electronic press, the other for online audiovisual services.

All sites, many of which are now hosted from abroad, must in future be "exclusively domiciled" in Algeria, with ".dz" domain names.

The decree also stipulates that online media directors must notify the authorities of any "illegal content" published on their platforms.

Aymen Zaghdoudi, a legal adviser with free speech group Article 19, said the new rules seek to strengthen "the control of political power over freedom of expression online".

Forcing sites to be based in Algeria "could lead to the violation of certain principles such as the secrecy of sources", he said.

And forcing sites to report what authorities deem to be illegal content, he said, would "turn journalists into police auxiliaries".

The other pressure building on online media is commercial.

State restrictions can be circumvented with VPN technology, but they do affect audience size – and therefore crucial private advertising revenue.

Further pressure could come through the allocation of public sector advertising, controlled by the National Agency for Publishing and Advertising.

The agency, which has so far worked with print and broadcast media, is setting up a digital control room for online media operations.

Journalist Djaafer has no doubt all the changes have one aim – to "outlaw those who want to remain independent".

Baala said that "we do not intend to comply with the decree because it is illegal. Even if we wanted to do it, we don't see how. The situation is grotesque."