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Algeria, Morocco using coronavirus to curb freedoms, activists say

Algeria has arrested three newspaper staffers over the coverage of coronavirus [Getty]

Date of publication: 7 April, 2020

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Algeria and Morocco appear to be using the coronavirus pandemic to quietly silence dissent and arrest journalists who are reporting on the pandemic.
Algerian authorities have arrested three employees of the privately owned Essawt El-Akhar daily newspaper and interrogated them over a story about the coronavirus epidemic.

Human rights groups are concerned this could be the start of a crackdown on the press, whilst Hirak protesters remain behind bars in Morocco.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said on 1 April Algerian officers detained reporter Meriem Cherfi, publications manager Rafik Mouhoub, and editor-in-chief Mohamed Lamari for about two hours at the gendarmerie headquarters in Algiers before releasing them without charge.

The trio were then interrogated about an article in the daily alleging that the Pasteur Institute in Algiers, which is a state facility that is studying Covid-19, had published incorrect results from patients with the virus.

On 2 April, a national prosecutor at the Sidi M'Hamed Criminal Court in Algiers charged Cherfi, Mouhoub, and Lamari with committing an "attack on national unity" due to their work at the newspaper.

According to their legal representative, such a charge is an offence under the criminal code and if convicted, the three could each face up to ten years in prison.

The national prosecutor requested the three remain in detention, but the judge ordered them to be released under judicial supervision until the end of the investigation, Saleh told CPJ.

Journalist arrests under the cover of coronavirus

Earlier this week, Reporters Without Borders accused Algeria's government of taking advantage of the coronavirus epidemic to "settle scores" with independent journalists. It included those covering long-running anti-government protests.

In a statement co-signed with Algerian NGOs, the watchdog called on Thursday for the immediate release of its correspondent Khaled Drareni, who has been in pre-trial detention since 29 March charged with inciting an unarmed gathering and endangering national unity.

Drareni has been arrested several times for covering the "Hirak" anti-government protests held in the capital Algiers every Friday since February 2019.

Imprisoning people during a pandemic is "an act of physical endangerment", RSF said, accusing the government of "taking advantage of the coronavirus epidemic to settle scores with independent journalism".

Hirak activists languishing in Moroccan prisons

Amnesty International has called on the Moroccan authorities to release activists from prisons, as the risk of Covid-19 makes jails a potential breeding ground for the virus.

Although the justice ministry on Monday said 5,654 detainees would be freed as part of coronavirus control efforts, human rights groups believe more must be done.

"The Moroccan authorities should be prompted by the grim prospect of Covid-19 spreading in prisons to release the dozens of detainees held simply for expressing their views or for exercising their right to protest. These peaceful individuals should never have been imprisoned in the first place," said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s MENA Regional Director.

"For those who remain in detention or prison the Moroccan government must provide a standard of health that meets each person's individual needs and ensures the maximum possible protection against the spread of Covid-19.”

Between November 2019 and January 2020, at least ten individuals - including one journalist and two rappers - were arrested and sentenced to prison sentences over online comments.

All of them were accused of "offending public officials or institutions", and seven of the group are currently imprisoned in various locations across Morocco.

Read More: For Middle East refugees, social distancing is a privilege few can afford

Activist Abdelali Bahmad, alias Ghassan Bouda is serving a one-year prison sentence for "insulting" the monarchy after he wrote online posts in support to the Hirak El-Rif protests on his page.

Bloggers Moul El Hanout and Youssef Moujahid are serving four years in prison after a Rabat court convicted them of offending "public officials" and "institutions" and "incitement to hatred" for posting videos.

Aside from the human rights implications, Amnesty International is concerned with the state of prisons and what it could mean for the spread of coronavirus.

Prisons in Morocco suffer from overcrowding, and a significant portion of its inmates are pre-trial detainees.

"The government should also seriously consider adopting non-custodial measures for people accused of minor offenses or who are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19, such as older prisoners and those with serious medical conditions," said Amnesty’s regional director, Morayef.

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