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Exclusive: Algerian journalist beaten by police warns of escalating crackdown on press freedom

ALGERIAN journalist Mustapha Bendjama warned of an escalating crackdown on press freedom and opposition movements after he was brutally beaten by police in his country’s north-east.

Mustapha Bendjema shows off his injuries
Mustapha Bendjema shows off his injuries

Speaking exclusively to the Star, he told of being kidnapped and subjected to violence while covering a demonstration in the city of Annaba last week.

Mr Bendjama, editor-in-chief of the the Le Provincial newspaper, explained that he had been grabbed by undercover police soon after starting a live Facebook stream of the protest, which was part of the Hirak – the country’s growing revolutionary movement.

“I was led on foot and slapped and punched, but I did not offer any resistance. I received a lot of insults, too,” he said.

At the police station, officers looked at his photos, videos and conversations on Facebook, Messenger and other social media networks. 

“They reproached me for talking with other journalists in Algiers and elsewhere for passing on information about what is happening in Annaba to fellow journalists. I wonder if speaking to fellow journalists is a crime,” he said.

“On the police report I was asked to sign, it was written that I admit communicating on social networks with other journalists, including Abdou Semmar.” 

Mr Semmar was arrested last year – and subsequently freed – for uncovering a tax evasion scheme that cost the Algerian state millions of pounds.

“I was released nearly eight hours after my arrest,” Mr Bendjama told the Star. “I went to the University Hospital Centre where a doctor noticed the bruises and abrasions I had on my body.”

He later noticed that police had installed a spy application on his phone to monitor his activities.

Mr Bendjama claimed he had been targeted after being photographed on a previous demonstration bearing the Amazigh/Berber flag and denouncing police violence against protesters.

This was “not to the liking of the political police,” he said, adding that he received a chilling warning that he was being watched and it was only a matter of time before he paid the price.

Displaying Berber insignia was banned two weeks ago by armed forces head General Ahmed Gaid Salah after it began to feature prominently in the weekly anti-government protests.

Mr Bendjama said that during the first weeks of the protests, which started in February, there appeared to be a new openness and freedom for the media.

However, since “Gen Galah has now become the real master in Algeria, the little freedom gained during the popular movement has disappeared,” he warned.

Mr Bendjama said freedom of expression in Algeria has deteriorated. “Threats against critical media are no longer veiled,” he explained, with many journalists self-censoring through fear.

In recent weeks, prominent opposition politicians have been targeted, including Lakhdar Bourega, a leading figure in the 1954-62 revolution against French rule. 

Huge demonstrations are expected on Friday to mark the 57th anniversary of Algerian independence.

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