Rachad Movement: Annoying Enough!

With the start of the year 2010, there are reports that the first political Internet website to be censored in Algeria is rachad.org. Le Quotidien D’Algerie discovered this today. It was verified by this blog and others. The website appears in Google search results, but upon clicking it the web browser displays an innocent looking error. It is not clear when the website was censored, or if this is the only censored website so far or. It is also not clear how the filter is implemented.

The website in question is that of the Rachad Movement, a loose opposition organisation in exile formed by a mix of former diplomats, ex-civil servants, journalists and members of the now banned Islamist party FIS. The movement campaigns for a peaceful overthrow of the current regime.  The movement’s figurehead is Mohamed Larbi Zitout, a former diplomat who fled after claiming that the Army has a hand in the massacres of the civil war. Zitout is a regular commentator in Arab and Western news stations and a staunch critic of the government. Last month he broke the rumour that Algeria has accepted temporary American military stations, a rumour vehemently denied by the Algerian state and AFRICOM – this is probably what annoyed the authorities enough.

This blog covered the legal framework that the authorities have been preparing to create an internet filter and to make circumventing it a crime in itself in a previous post. The filter has been presented as an effort to combat “cybercrime”, extremist and pornographic websites. But in keeping with their tradition, predictably the authorities started using its powers to crack down on political websites. In the same way, the authorities uses its control of the media sphere to forbid private stations and the state owned printing companies to intimidate private newspapers.

No political blogger or internet activist has been directly imprisoned or sued by the state so far. There was one civil case against Abdessalam Baroudi, the author of bilad 13, for a (brilliant) satirical post comparing the local religious affairs director with al-Sistani. The case was dismissed on grounds of freedom of expression.

Last week, in its latest report on Internet censorship the Cairo based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) has rated Algeria as one of the “best countries dealing with the internet”, together with Lebanon. Apparently the praise has unsettled some backwards thinking bureaucrats. As suspected, the absence of censorship up to now is not evidence of love for freedom of expression, it is the sad product of incompetence mixed with the embarrassingly low Internet penetration in Algeria by the region’s standards.

So this is the first banned website so far, I suspect that Algérie-politique and the other popular opposition websites will soon follow. Rachad has not reached critical mass in Algeria yet, but the state might be shooting itself in the foot here and spreading the word. So pass this news on, more Algerians should be aware of what they are not allowed to read!