Algerian police arrested Thursday a dozen journalists protesting “censorship” of coverage of demonstrations against a fifth term for President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, as the prime minister compared the rallies to those that sparked Syria’s war.
A police official later said the journalists had been released.
Around 100 print and broadcast journalists, working for both state-owned and private outlets, joined the demonstration in central Algiers against reporting restrictions they say have been imposed by media bosses on the protests that broke out last Friday.
They shouted “No to censorship” and “Fourth estate, not a press that follows orders”.
As the demonstration got underway police arrested a dozen journalists, an AFP reporter said, sparking angry reactions from their colleagues who banged on the police vans that drove them away.
“Free our colleagues,” the remaining demonstrators shouted.
Motorists who witnessed the arrests honked their horns in solidarity and shouted “Free press”.
Two hours later police, including some in anti-riot gear, broke up the protest which had gathered at the “Place de la liberte de la presse” (Press Freedom Square) in central Algiers.
The demonstrators tried to regroup at the Tahar Djaout Press House where several private newspapers have their offices, but they were again dispersed by the police.
Hakim Belouar, spokesman for the Directorate General for National Security later told AFP that “no journalists” remained in police custody.
Algeria has been hit by a wave of protests over 81-year-old Bouteflika’s announcement he will seek a fifth term at an April 18 election.
The veteran leader, who took power in 1999, has used a wheelchair since suffering a stroke in 2013 and is rarely seen in public.
Tens of thousands took part in the first protests last Friday, and there have further demonstrations daily since, both in the provinces and in the capital, where the rallies are illegal.
On Thursday Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia compared the growing protest movement to the peaceful demonstrations that erupted in Syria and sparked a war which is now nearing its ninth year.
– Syria ‘began with roses’ –
Speaking in parliament Ouyahia said some “demonstrators offered roses to the policemen. But we should recall that in Syria it also began with roses”, he said.
His remarks sparked ire from a number of lawmakers who stormed out of parliament, while others applauded the prime minister.
“I am not trying to scare the people,” Ouyahia said in his defence.
Syria’s war broke out in March 2011 after the brutal repression of nationwide anti-regime protests that demanded civil liberties and the release of political prisoners.
It has since evolved into a complex conflict involving world powers, regional factions and jihadists that has left more than 360,000 people dead, according to a war monitor, and millions displaced.
Ouyahia told parliament peaceful protests are among the rights enshrined in the Algerian constitution but he warned against the possibility that outside forces he did not name could “manipulate” demonstrators.
The scale of the protests have taken many by surprise and since last Friday students and lawyers have also demonstrated against Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term.
At the same time both the state broadcaster and private channels owned by media magnates close to the government have kept silent about the protests.
State radio journalists said they had been ordered by management not to cover them.
Press watchdog Reporters Without Borders — which ranks Algeria 136th out of 180 in its World Press Freedom Index — earlier accused the authorities of seeking to “muzzle” the media.
On Thursday the group called for the immediate release of “all the journalists who were violently arrested”.
Bouteflika flew to Switzerland on Sunday for what the presidency called “routine medical checks” ahead of the election.