Even as the COVID-19 pandemic halted Algeria’s hallmark mass gatherings, forcing Hirak to become largely an online movement, the Algerian government increased its crackdown on the movement’s online presence. Consequently, the movement now devotes most of its energy to resisting what activists are describing as an unprecedented crackdown on freedom of expression.
The loosely organized Hirak movement remains leaderless and without an official platform. Yet despite the sometimes-contradictory ideologies of its protesters, the movement has succeeded in raising national political awareness, and normalizing opposition. As the movement, slowed by the pandemic, seemingly loses momentum, Algerian citizens cling to the most consequential impact of the marches: the newfound interest of ordinary citizens in politics and increased confidence to openly criticize their leaders—including the generals and the figures upholding citizens’ repression. In response to the Hirak’s fanning of bold criticisms, the government increasingly targeted journalists and activists. According to Hirak and human rights activist Zaki Hannache, about ninety people are currently imprisoned for expressing their support of the Hirak, in most cases on Facebook. Hannache, who has kept track of detentions linked to the Hirak, estimates that while more than 1,500 have been arrested, at least 150 people have been jailed in 2020.1
On April 22, 2020, Algeria's parliament dealt a blow to freedom of speech when it swiftly adopted a draft law punishing the dissemination of false information—increasing potential for repression. Notably, to date, the regime has arrested and tried dozens of protesters and citizens for expressing their opinion and charged them under pre existing laws in the penal code. Several have been prosecuted for open criticism of the president. For example, twenty-five-year-old Waled Kechida, creator of the Facebook group "Hirak memes," was jailed on April 27 and sentenced to three years in jail on January 4, 2021, for "contempt and offense to the President of the Republic," among other charges. Abdelkrim Zeghileche, the founder of the radio Sarbacane who was jailed previously in 2018, spent six months in prison for "undermining the image of the President" and "attacking national unity" in two Facebook posts. Though he was released on December 23, he had to return to court to face two other charges, including one dating back to 2018 in which he had been accused of “undermining the image of the President”— the ousted Bouteflika.
Algerian authorities are also intensifying the direct intimidation of independent journalists and pressure on media outlets. Although the independent press was already weakened throughout Bouteflika’s rule, the pandemic’s halting of the Hirak movement highlighted independent media outlet’s central role in sustaining the movement. Since the Hirak began, at least twenty-one journalists have been arrested for their coverage of the movement.2 Algeria's government has also blocked news websites known for their coverage of the Hirak - Interlignes, Casbah Tribune and TSA, among others. These three news websites are currently accessible only via VPN. The regime couldn’t censor the electronic press with financial pressure —as it did with the traditional press — because online news outlets did not receive public advertising through the National Institute for Publishing and Advertising (ANEP). Thus, the government has resorted to restricting citizens’ access without any legal justification or prior warnings. Despite this, many electronic outlets have continued to cover the Hirak.
Furthermore, since the beginning of the Hirak movement, and more so since the onset of the pandemic, repeated arrests and detentions have become a recurring pattern for journalists. Before his current incarceration, Khaled Drareni, founder of the news website Casbah Tribune and correspondent for TV5 Monde, had already been detained and interrogated several times. Drareni’s sentencing to two years in prison in August was a turning point as his case increased self-censorship among his colleagues. Another example is Mustapha Bendjama, the editor in chief of the newspaper Le Provincial, who has been arrested at least fifteen times and charged in four trials so far, all based on Facebook publications.3
As the prosecution pushes for prison sentences in two ongoing cases, Bendjama says that now is the most critical moment for Algeria's independent journalists and activists.4 The situation for journalists is even more dangerous than under former president Bouteflika's rule. Reporters are arrested countless times and their circumstances can be at times comparable to those of their imprisoned colleagues. However, despite the increasing repression, they continue to speak up and denounce the political status quo.
Within the Hirak movement, many now call for formal organization in order to maintain pressure on the national political system, and to take to the streets as soon as the health situation allows. The pandemic and the arrest of hundreds of activists has minimized the Hirak into a movement resisting political detention, rather than a genuine opposition force which could put forward a political alternative and exert more pressure on the regime. Moreover, the political parties supporting the Hirak—Socalist Forces Front and Rally for Culture and Democracy for example—and the country’s civil society, greatly weakened under Bouteflika’s reign, have failed to transform the movement into an alternative political force. But the discontent the Hirak brought to the fore will only increase with the new challenges ahead, in a country where access to healthcare is limited, inequalities grow, and corruption is widespread. The motivations which led protesters to get out almost two years ago still prevail.
Ilhem Rachidi is a freelance journalist covering Morocco and Algeria, focusing on protest movements and human rights issues. Follow her on Twitter @Ilhemrachidi.
1 Interviews conducted by the author on January 11 and 15, 2021.
2 Interview conducted by the author with Mustapha Bendjama on January 18, 2021.
3Author interview with Mustapha Bedjama, December 15, 2021.