With the arrest of Ihsane El Kadi, a renowned journalist and director of Radio M, Tebboune’s regime has crushed one of the last independent voices in Algeria’s local media, writes Daikha Dridi.
Ihsane El-Kadi is head of the independent station Radio M, which is widely considered the last space for free debate in Algeria.
The phone rang at 10.30 pm on the 24 December. When Algerian journalist Ihsane El Kadi, head of the independent web broadcaster Radio M and news site Maghreb Emergent answered, a military officer informed him that he was to turn himself in immediately at the Antar military barracks in Algiers. El Kadi calmly replied that he wasn’t in Algiers, and that he would drop by when he returned to the capital the next morning. He had been with his family in Zemmouri, a little coastal village more than 60 kilometres from Algiers. At half past midnight, however, they heard knocking on the door; outside were a half-dozen men in civilian clothes, who were waiting to take him to his interrogation by the General Directorate of Internal Security.
The next day, the security services closed down Henry Dunant Street, the steep alley in the heart of downtown Algiers where El Kadi’s outlets are based. Police officers swarmed into the offices, ordering everyone out. They brought El Kadi inside, handcuffed, to watch the raid on his institution. His colleagues and friends gathered outside on the street, some broke down in tears at the sight of the shackled journalist, dragged like a criminal to the scene of his “crime”: an independent radio and news site.
''In the devastated post-Hirak press landscape, Ihsane El Kadi has remained steadfast. In 40 years of independent journalism, he has stayed committed to the struggle for democracy and human rights. With a small team of young journalists, mostly women, Radio M has continued broadcasting from the heart of Algiers, writing about political detainees, and has kept its studio doors open to all, including those most critical of the regime.''
Four days later, the military handed El Kadi off to a civilian judge, who ordered him to be jailed in Algiers’ Harrach prison. He was accused of receiving international and domestic funds to undermine the country.
Just days before his arrest, El Kadi had published a political analysis piece discussing the Army’s supposed uneasiness with Tebboune’s plans to run for a second term in 2024. He published it despite the intense pressure he had been under over the last three years, including facing sporadic arrests and three court cases – among them two absurd accusations of support for ‘terrorism’ which were thrown out by judges.
El Kadi was also sentenced to six-months in prison over an opinion piece that he had written related to the Hirak, which he was appealing.
Meanwhile, there were numerous orders to appear before different judges, or to be questioned at the gendarmerie, and unofficial “invitations” to drop in for questioning at Antar barracks, the nerve centre of the country’s political police. Unlike many of his colleagues in the press, El Kadi was unafraid to publicly document every intimidation. Loyal to his journalistic values, he refused to become the counterfeit that the military and civilian authorities running the country wanted him to become.
In this context, the spectacle the state made of his latest arrest was no accident. The entire affair was carefully orchestrated to make a point to the rest of the press: in Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s Algeria, the time for debate is over. The president has made clear that dissenting voices and independent news no longer have a place in the country.
Since taking power in 2019 – at the height of mass repression of the Hirak, the protest movement that brought down former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika – hunting down political opponents and independent journalists has practically become Tebboune’s personal trademark.
The first Algerian journalist to pay the price was Khaled Drareni, who was arrested while covering one of the Hirak protests in March 2020. Tebboune, ignoring due process and the rule of law, declared Drareni a ‘snitch’ for the country’s enemies at a public press conference before any trial had even taken place. The journalist, accused of "attacking national unity", was sentenced to three years in prison, and spent 11 months in custody.
The arrests of Liberte journalist Rabah Kareche, and Echourouk’s Belkacem Houam followed. In the smaller cities across the country, the authorities put enormous pressure on local correspondents. The police and courts relentlessly harassed independent journalists like Mustapha Bendjama, chief editor of Le Provincial newspaper, in the eastern city of Annaba.
Last year, the owner of the influential Algiers daily Liberte, bowed to pressure from the state and abruptly closed the newspaper.
Now, a new spectre looms over the Algerian press: legislation set to severely restrict news reporting is expected to easily pass in a parliament filled with the president’s yes-men.
Meanwhile, Algerian news sites are under constant cyber-attacks by the state, in a bid to prevent people within the country’s borders from reading them. Not to mention, Algerian private companies that dare to advertise in regime-critical media are also finding themselves victim to endless legal and bureaucratic problems.
In the devastated post-Hirak press landscape, Ihsane El Kadi has remained steadfast. In 40 years of independent journalism, he has stayed committed to the struggle for democracy and human rights. With a small team of young journalists, mostly women, Radio M has continued broadcasting from the heart of Algiers, writing about political detainees, and has kept its studio doors open to all, including those most critical of the regime.
For me, El Kadi’s arrest mirrors the methods that were so widely used in the 1990s, when Algeria was plunged into a bloody civil war. It was during those years that I got to know him as a new journalist: he was my editor in chief at La Tribune newspaper. He was the only editor I knew who did not fear to publish articles that detailed the terrible abuses committed by security forces during their struggle against terror groups. At that time, the repercussions against El Kadi were more subtle than now; he ended up losing his post as editor in chief and found himself pushed entirely out of the country’s newsrooms.
In those days, the Algerian state vigorously denied accusations of human rights violations as it held on to its self-image as a land of revolutionaries, ready to pay a steep price for liberty and independence.
Today’s Algeria is no longer at war, but its president seems to take an odd sort of pride in the state’s contempt for citizens who dare to express themselves freely, and for the best of its journalists.
Daikha Dridi is a journalist and former editor at Middle East Eye’s French edition. In Algiers, she previously hosted the "Café Presse Politique” political talk show on Radio M, and was editor of HuffPost Algeria. In San Francisco, she created and co-directed the alternative news website International Boulevard. She is the author of Alger, blessée et lumineuse (Autrement, Paris, 2006).
Follow her on Twitter: @DaikhaDridi