ALGIERS, Algeria -- Algeria's National Council passed a new media law that officials hailed as a major victory for the country's journalists as concerns about press freedoms have plagued President Abdelmajid Tebboune's first term in office.
The new law repeals the country's "press offense" law and enshrines new protections for journalists to ensure they will not face arrest or imprisonment for doing their jobs. However, the jailing of two prominent journalists have gained international notice and the laws that authorities have used to prosecute journalists -- including one banning foreign funding for media outlets -- remain on the books.
Still, the law's author, Algerian Minister of Communications Mohamed Laagab, called it "the best law in the history of independent Algeria regarding the journalism industry." He said it was a directive that came from the president.
Many journalists hailed the law passed Tuesday as major progress. Some responded with more caution.
Retired journalist and veteran political activist Ahmed Khezzana said he welcomed the law but wondered why Tebboune's administration had decided to champion it now, after years of imprisoning journalists including Khaled Drareni and Ihsane El Kadi.
"I don't think it's a conviction on the part of those in power, who don't fundamentally believe in press freedom. It's just that the prospect of the presidential election is approaching, so they need to look after their image," Khezzana said.
The overture to Algeria's once vibrant, now fledgling journalism sector comes a year before Tebboune campaigns for reelection.
The two cases Khezzana referenced garnered Algeria international condemnation.
Drareni, a former editor of Casbah Tribune and correspondent for France's TV5 Monde, was arrested and sentenced to prison in 2020 for inciting protests and attacking national unity. He was later pardoned and now works for Reporters Without Borders as its North Africa representative. El Kadi, the owner of a media company that oversaw the now-shuttered news site Maghreb Emergent and radio station Radio M, remains behind bars on similar charges related to threatening state security and taking foreign funds for his outlets.
El Kadi's lawyer, Fetta Sadat, told The Associated Press that he thought the new law was unlikely to affect his client's seven-year sentence handed down in April.
Throughout Tebboune's tenure, in addition to journalists facing prison sentences, the country's largest French language newspaper, Liberte, shuttered. Several news sites also have gone offline while others remain inaccessible throughout the country without VPN.
Repealing Algeria's "press offense" law has been under discussion in parliament for more than a decade. It was first enshrined into national law in 2011 but put on hold as the country continued to use it to prosecute journalists who wrote critically of the government, particularly during the 2019 Hirak protests that led to former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's ouster.
The law has served as a pretext to imprison several journalists, including El Kadi and Mustapha Bendjama, the editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper Le Provencal.
The new law will take effect when it's published in the country's official bulletin, at which time courts will no longer arbitrate what journalists can write. Afterward, the country's professional journalism organizations -- the Council of Ethics and Conduct, the Print Media Regulatory Authority and the Audiovisual Regulatory Authority -- will regulate the profession.