Free Ihsane El Kadi
When I last saw the Algerian journalist Ihsane El Kadi, over evening pastries at a smart new restaurant in central Algiers, he told me he wasn’t concerned by the campaign of harassment and intimidation being waged against him – the numerous arrests, various ‘voluntary’ interrogations and three prosecutions since 2019. It was mid-December, his latest trial had just concluded, and he’d already launched a new volley in the form of an article about divisions in the regime over the upcoming 2024 presidential election. He rejected the suggestion he might want to keep a low profile while awaiting his verdict. ‘What are we supposed to do, just shut up?’ he asked.
Describing El Kadi as an opposition journalist seems somehow to miss the point. The son of a prominent revolutionary and a lifelong dissident, he has always struck me as more of a determined optimist than an opposant, always expecting better for a country that has been run into ruin by a parade of mediocrities. Now 63, he was continuously plagued by official harassment, but seemed more interested in piling chocolate éclairs in front of my eight-year-old.
A week later, he was with his wife and daughter at their beach bungalow. The phone rang at 10.30 p.m. on 24 December. ‘We want you for questioning,’ the voice on the line told him. ‘Turn yourself in immediately.’
‘I’m not at home,’ he said. ‘I’ll come by in the morning.’ Two hours later, they came to him: a midnight knock at the door, a crowd of Internal Security agents, and a ride back to a military barracks in the capital for interrogation. The next day, handcuffed, he was marched into the downtown offices of the website he has run for the past decade, the last in a series of journalistic ventures that stretches back to the 1990s.
Radio M and its associated website, Maghreb Émergent, have long held an outsize influence on Algeria’s media landscape, with their mix of incisive economic reporting (El Kadi is a trained economist), political commentary and investigative journalism in both French and Arabic. Many journalists got their starts working for El Kadi over the years.
The security agents herded writers and editors out of the newsrooms and offices, ransacked filing cabinets, seized computers and hard drives, and sealed the doors behind them when they left. At the same time, the company’s websites were blocked across Algeria. Although a few writers have continued posting articles from home to a site their compatriots cannot see, the country’s last independent media company has for all intents and purposes been shut down.
Three years ago, the popular uprising known as the Hirak briefly threatened to upend the oligarchy of military officers and their civilian accomplices who have ruled the country since independence. Radio M helped set the agenda for the leaderless movement. And more than any other media outlet, El Kadi’s programmes were open to competing points of view: liberal democrats, Communists, Islamists and others could all get a hearing.
For most of the last 25 years, the press in Algeria was far less muzzled than in most Arab states. Government policies could be criticised and calls for democratic reform were countenanced, but there were red lines: direct attacks on the cabal of generals who pulled the levers behind the scenes were understood to be off-limits.
This changed with the Hirak. Social media stars and opposition bloggers were arrested, among them the host of Radio M’s political talk show, Khaled Drareni, who spent 11 months in prison. Most smaller new media sites fell into line or went offline, but Radio M was unbowed.
Bringing larger institutions to heel was more complicated. The billionaire owner of the influential newspaper Liberté, Issad Rebrab, who had once been close to the regime, was arrested in 2019, accused of obscure economic crimes. Released after nine months in prison, he found the paper starved of advertising, and its journalists subject to harassment; the paper’s Tamanrasset correspondent, Rabah Karèche, was jailed for an article he’d written. Rebrab closed the paper last year.
El Watan, the country’s other large French daily with a relatively independent editorial line, had its accounts frozen by the state bank, and all advertising from the Agence Nationale d’Édition et de Publicité (ANEP) was withdrawn. The paper’s journalists worked unpaid for nearly half a year before the editors caved in and aligned with the state’s demands.
The ANEP is a powerful tool of control and patronage, allowing the state to prop up selected publications and benefit its friends, while starving papers and websites that don’t toe the line. Private-sector advertising allowed a few new media like Radio M to survive for a while, but intimidation and arrests are closing off that funding too.
Radio M got much of its advertising and private support from Nabil Mellah, the owner of a pharmaceutical company, until he was arrested in May 2021 and sentenced to four years in prison on money laundering charges that court observers described as ‘surreal’ and baseless.
El Kadi is now in the same jail as Mellah – the same prison he was locked up in as a 21-year-old pro-democracy student activist a lifetime ago in 1981. The charges are ‘seeking to undermine the security and stability of the state’ by collecting funds to publish ‘propaganda’. In other words, non-conformist journalism.
President Abdelmadjid Tebboune likes to talk about his project for ‘Building a New Algeria’ – a slogan also used in the waning days of French rule. It is strange and sad to see this country, once one of history’s great liberation stories, ruled by bent old bureaucrats and decrepit generals, repeating the slogans and empty ideas of the colonial master who departed sixty years ago, and throwing anyone who questions them in prison.