Algerian cartoonist faces prison for a drawing never published
Djamel Ghanem, a cartoonist for “La Voix de l’Oranie, a daily newspaper in the Oran region of Agleria, is being prosecuted for a drawing featuring President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. He risks spending 18 months in prison, though his cartoon was never published or otherwise made public.
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Photo of Djamel Ghanem shared on social media.
Djamel Ghanem, a cartoonist for “La Voix de l’Oranie", a daily newspaper in the Oran region of Algeria, is being prosecuted for a drawing featuring President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. He risks spending 18 months in prison, though his cartoon was never published or otherwise made public.
On February 11, prosecutors demanded not only a prison sentence, but also a 30,000 dinar fine (about 300 euros) for the cartoonist’s alleged crime of “contempt of the President of the Republic”.
Surprisingly, the cartoonist was sued following a complaint submitted by his own employer in October 2013. The drawing in question was supposed to be published in the newspaper’s September 30 edition, but never ran.
While waiting for the sentence, which is due to come down on March 4, many Algerians have been using social networks to defend the journalist, and a petition requesting that charges be dropped has garnered more than 1,000 signatures since February 14.
Cartoon by Djamel Ghanem condemning nepotism in the professional world. The title reads: “Thousands of new jobs in September.” The signs on the tables read: “Reserved.” Posted on Facebook in support of his cause.
“The president is not even depicted in the drawing”
Abderrahmane Semmar is a member of the activist collective known as “the Special Envoys” and is part of Ghanem’s support committee.
I have never before heard of an editor submitting a complaint against one of his employees for being in contempt of the president, for something that hasn’t even been published. Certainly, the newspaper’s editorial team is known for being sympathetic to the government, but they have now seriously crossed the line.
During the hearing on February 11, the judge exerted severe pressure on the young cartoonist to try to get him to admit that he insulted the president. However, Abdelaziz Bouteflika is not even depicted in the drawing. I saw the cartoon, and it only depicts a man going to the pharmacy to buy diapers for his baby. The pharmacist asks him, “What term do you need these diapers for?” The man responds that he needs diapers “for the fourth term.” [Editor’s note: the 76-year old president, weakened by illness, has not yet announced whether he would run in the presidential election slated for April 17. If re-elected, this would be his fourth term]. According to what Djamel Ghanem told me, the cartoon is meant to say that if Bouteflika runs for a fourth term, Algerians will be infantilised and will continue to wear diapers like babies. It is not an insult to the president.
Drawing by Djamel Ghanem criticising the lack of education reform. The school inspector says: “Wake up! Where do you think you are? In parliament?” Published on Facebook.
The editorial board of the “Voix de l’Oranie” has also accused the journalist of “breach of trust” and of “fraudulent access to their automatic data entry system”. According to them, Ghanem broke into the newspaper’s archives to store his cartoon there. But he works there; it’s perfectly normal for him to save his cartoon in their archives! In fact, he told me he was involved in an ongoing lawsuit with the newspaper from well before this controversy. He had submitted a complaint to the labour inspectorate regarding unpaid salaries.
Although this lawsuit seems absurd, Ghanem runs a very real risk of going to prison due to article 144b of the criminal code, which punishes contempt of the president. The code allows for lawsuits regardless of whether or not an article or drawing was published. You run the risk of prison time just for comments you make out loud in, say, a coffee shop, if they are deemed insulting to the president.
Reporters Without Borders’ latest annual report on freedom of the press places Algeria in 121st place out of 180, a slight improvement relative to 2012 where it held 125th place.
Several other cases of attacks on freedom of the press have been reported in Algeria in the last few months. For instance, blogger Abdelghani Aloui has been detained since September for creating and sharing photomontages poking fun at the president on Facebook. He is accused of “contempt of an official state body”. And several days ago, Ikram Ghioua, a journalist for the “L’Expression” daily newspaper, was violently beaten by a police commander as she was reporting on a plane crash in the eastern province of Oum El Bouaghi.