If imprisoned Algerian journalist Khaled Drareni managed to get a copy of the draft constitution Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune circulated in early May, he might savor the irony.
The draft – like the current constitution – provides that “No press offense shall be punished by imprisonment.” The draft even strengthens the current provision defining pretrial detention as an “exceptional measure.”
Drareni, Algiers correspondent of French TV5 Monde and Reporters sans Frontières, and co-founder of the news website casbah-tribune.com, has been in jail for two months, accused of “calling for an illegal gathering” and “undermining national unity.”
These charges, while ostensibly non-journalistic, have everything to do with Drareni’s coverage of the weekly pro-reform demonstrations by the “Hirak” movement and his tweeting live footage to his 140,000-plus followers.
The Hirak’s mass marches have shaken Algeria since February 2019, forcing the resignation of Tebboune’s predecessor, Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
On March 7, authorities arrested Drareni at one of the last Hirak demonstrations before they were suspended due to Covid-19. Provisionally released March 10, Drareni was detained again on March 29 and has been held since. On May 27, an Algiers court again denied his petition for pretrial release. No judge has yet questioned him.
Drareni is not the only victim of the state’s efforts to crush the Hirak protest movement. Dozens of leaders and activists have been imprisoned on accusations similar to those leveled at Drareni. Authorities appear to be exploiting the Covid-19 confinement period to cripple the movement so it does not come roaring back if and when they ease restrictions on gatherings.
Upon taking office, Tebboune said he had heard the demands of the Hirak movement. The preamble to the draft constitution even nods to the aspirations for “a new Algeria as expressed peacefully by the popular movement since February 19, 2019.” However, the body of the draft delivers none of the systemic change the Hirak had demanded.
Unveiling the draft, Tebbone pledged a consultative process in refining it. Nothing could be less auspicious than conducting that consultation while authorities are jailing opposition leaders and independent journalists like Drareni for “undermining national unity.” That charge, by virtue of its broadness, should not even exist if the protection for freedom of expression enshrined in the current constitution carried any weight.