Drivers on one of Paris’s busiest roads were greeted Thursday by the smiling portrait of Khaled Drareni, a correspondent for the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders and the French network TV5 Monde, who is jailed in Algeria.
Designed by a Parisian street artist named C215, the 18-meter-by-18-meter portrait was installed exactly one month after an Algiers appeals court ruled that Dranei must serve two years in prison over his coverage of anti-government protests.
Media freedom groups say the appeals court verdict shows the dangers for online journalists, and it signals the deterioration of press freedom in Algeria since President Abdelmadjid Tebboune came to power in 2019.
“The size of this portrait matches the size of our determination to obtain Khaled’s release – immense,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said in a statement. “Drareni’s continuing detention is absurd and unjust. He just did his job as a journalist and his release is a matter of the utmost urgency.”
Authorities arrested Drareni on March 5 on accusations including “inciting an unarmed gathering” and “endangering national security” in two social media posts and charges related to accreditation.
At the time, the founder of the Algeria-based Arabic news outlet Casbah Tribune was covering the Hirak anti-government protests that began in Algiers in February 2019.
The Hirak movement started in response to Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth presidential term. Bouteflika stepped down, but the anti-government protests continued.
“[Drareni’s] case got so much attention because a lot of people feel that they are him. That he represents the broader community of online journalists who take risks,” said Sherif Mansour, the Middle East program coordinator for the press freedom organization Committee to Protect Journalists.
Ravi Prasad, the director of advocacy at the International Press Institute, said the overall situation in Algeria is “precarious.” After the election and the Hirak movement, “the government didn’t take it quietly, resorting to quieting critics with flimsy charges.”
Nearly seven journalists have been arrested since the new government took power, with authorities using charges like disinformation, false news, or insulting the president to jail them, Prasad said.
As well as arrests, the government in April passed a law banning what it deems as “fake news” that “undermines public order and security” or “state security and national unity.” The law includes an amendment to the criminal code that includes penalties of up to five years in prison.
“The law is being used as an excuse to prosecute journalists and step up censorship efforts. Just because some reporters were released doesn’t stop the threat,” said Mansour.
“Once the pandemic hit, the president and his allies felt they can backslide on reforms and go in the opposite direction,” Mansour said.
Tebboune has denied in press briefings this year that journalists are suppressed.
At a press briefing last month, Tebboune said press freedom was not under attack and repeated comments from government officials who say that Drarni lacked a permit allowing him to work as a journalist, or documents showing he works with a foreign news agency.
Algeria’s Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to VOA’s email requesting comment.
At least six news websites reported in April and May that access to their sites within Algeria appeared to have been blocked. All six had reported on issues including protests and criticisms on how authorities handled the pandemic, according to a CPJ statement.
Also in May, a satirical news site named El Manchar said it would stop publishing to avoid persecution.
In a statement, El Manchar said, “the climate of repression of freedoms, the imprisonment of citizens following their activities on social media has led us to reflect on the risks that we run.”
The statement said the website may return, adding, “We will find ourselves in a better Algeria. An Algeria where this fear will not exist and where everyone can deploy their creative forces.”
In the case of RSF correspondent Dranei, a Paris official — Eric Offredo, first deputy to the mayor of the city’s 13th arrondissement district — said in a statement he hoped the art display would contribute to the journalist’s release and show that Paris is committed to defending press freedom.
Dranei’s jailing over protest coverage also reflects a wider pattern globally of crackdowns on media during civil unrest.
A study by UNESCO, “Safety of Journalists Covering Protests – Preserving Freedom of the Press During Times of Civil Unrest,” found a sharp worldwide increase of media freedom violations by police and security forces during protests in the first half of 2020. The report, which looks at civil unrest in 65 countries, noted a “wider upward trend in the use of unlawful force by police and security forces over the last five years.”
VOA’s Nisan Ahmando contributed to this report.