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Algerian Cartoonist Faces 18 Months in Jail for Mocking President

[All links lead to French-language web pages.]

His name is Djamel Ghanem, and he's a young Algerian cartoonist. His job is no fun in a country where censorship and prosecution await those who dare to speak their minds. Ghanem faces 18 months in prison for an unpublished caricature of Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika that was deemed offensive by the authorities. 

Djamel Ghanem

Djamel Ghanem via Algérie Focus. Used with permission

In fact, President Bouteflika is not represented or even directly mentioned in the unpublished cartoon. The drawing portrays two citizens mocking the fourth term the current president is seeking after ruling Algeria for 15 years. The caricature compares the fourth mandate to baby diapers. With the drawing, Ghanem wanted to convey the idea that Algerians are treated like children.

For that, he was taken to court and threatened with imprisonment. The district attorney of Oran, the second largest city in Algeria, located 400 kilometers northwest of the capital Algiers, wanted the cartoonist to admit that he had the intention of insulting the president. But Ghanem categorically denied that he had such intention. 

Neither Bouteflika nor his advisers filed the suit against Ghanem. It was Ghanem's former employer, La Voix de l'Oranie (Voice of Oran), a daily newspaper known for its pro-regime editorial line, who sued him for the cartoon which was never published in the media. 

Sued by his own newspaper, Ghanem saw all the doors of Algerian media closing in his face. Interviewed by Algerie-Focus, Ghanem explained that he has had difficulties finding a lawyer to defend his cause along with other challenges: 

Le directeur de publication d’un autre quotidien a été menacé si jamais il me recrutait. Je suis devenu persona non grata. A travers moi, ils veulent abattre l’opposition algérienne qui dit non à un quatrième mandat

the director of another newspaper was advised to not hire me. I became persona non-grata. Through me, they want to thwart the opposition who is fighting against a fourth term for the president.

After the case's first hearing, the judges requested an 18-month prison sentence against Ghanem. The final ruling is expected next month on March 4. Meanwhile, netizens are voicing their support for and solidarity with Ghanem. An online petition demands that Ghanem be let go:

Si les médias et l’opinion se taisaient sur cette atteinte à la liberté d’expression et ces violations des droits d’un citoyen dans les bureaux d’un juge, les tribunaux pourraient demain condamner un journaliste pour avoir pensé du mal du président de la république, d’un gradé de l’armée, d’un ministre ou d’un élu. Nous signataires de cet appel exigeons l’arrêt des poursuites judiciaires engagées contre Djamel Ghanem

If the media and the opinion keep quiet on this infringement of freedom of expression and the violation of a citizen's rights, then tomorrow any court can charge a journalist for criticizing the president of the republic, an army official, a minister or a deputy. With this petition, we demand an end to the prosecution against Djamel Ghanem.

By shielding the president against any criticism, the administration is trying to impose a totalitarian ideology upon its citizens. Freedom of expression is at risk in Algeria. Ghanem's case is a typical example of how dire the situation is for cartoonists and other people willing to speak up.

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