Truth Under Siege

For journalists in war-torn Algeria, assassination isn't just another story--it's a job hazard. A rare look inside an independent press struggling under a death sentence.

| Tue Aug. 11, 1998 2:00 AM EDT

"The most difficult times are when I take pictures after the massacres." The voice is soft, understated. "I have to stay in control, I can't be touched emotionally...but it's very hard what we see, very hard." The face is young, the eyes bloodshot. A tired, melancholic smile plays on the lips, as trembling fingers press another cigarette into service.

"One time after a massacre, a woman came to me like this [he demonstrates], with a baby in her arms. She said that his mother and father had just been killed, and she cried at me, 'What am I going to do with him, what am I going to do?' And it was very hard for me, because that little baby was the same age as my son. At that time I couldn't see my family. I couldn't sleep in my house. I had to move, move, always move."

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He takes a deep breath. "And so that was the only time I fell down. But I still took the pictures of the woman and that baby. If you try and follow one story like this, you can never work again. There are hundreds of examples like this. It's horrible, terrible. C'etait tres difficile...c'etait tres difficile," he repeats over and over to himself, shaking his head.

It is difficult not to be moved by Khared's (not his real name) story or those of hundreds of journalists like him. One of Algeria's top press photographers, he admits: "Working here in Algeria is very, very hard. I can't use my real name and I can't live at home; I've had to send my wife and my son to France, because of the danger, and that's very, very difficult for me."

Outside the sun glistens on the whitewashed colonial buildings which give Algiers its name of "La Ville Blanche"—The White City. In the plush surroundings of the one hotel which permits foreigners, where we sit drinking sweet tea, it is easy to forget that Algeria has earned a reputation as one of the most dangerous countries on Earth. During one of my meetings with Khared—which could only take place with permission from Ministry of Interior "minders"—a bomb exploded in the distance, which we later learned had killed 25 people.

Photographers such as Khared are on the front line of a civil war which has torn apart this former French colony, claiming up to 80,000 lives in just six years. The war is being fought between Islamic extremists, the main faction of which is the Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA) and a secular, military regime, which prevented the main Islamic party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), from taking power after it won elections in 1991.

It is an extremely vicious war; as one journalist put it, "worse than Latin America or Cambodia, fought without mercy" on either side. Whole villages have been massacred by extremists and faceless death squads. Checkpoints can turn into ambushes, and thousands have disappeared, presumed killed or held in prison. This is a war in which children and babies have frequently had their throats cut, and pregnant women been disemboweled.

Assassinated editor Omar Watilan of the Arabic newspaper Al Habar (The Information), oversees his successor. Watilan was murdered by fundamentalists for not supporting their extreme Islamic views.
Yet there is another, unnoticed, battle here, one fought by a fledgling independent press and the journalist-proprietors who run it. Caught between an often repressive regime, keen to silence criticism, and the Islamic fundamentalists, who regard them as traitors, journalists have often been critical of both sides—with deadly results.

Seventy journalists, photographers, and associated staff have lost their lives here since May 1993, killed by the fundamentalists. Sometimes the killers have ambushed their victims and killed them with a single shot to the head. Or they have cut their throats, often in front of friends or family. Even engaged couples who are journalists have been slain while walking together—the traditional "hijab," or veil, has been no protection for women. Foreign journalists have died too, including a cameraman for ABC. Many of those killed were not even political or security correspondents—sometimes just technicians, cartoonists, secretaries. All those, in the fundamentalists' eyes, who were somehow implicated by their connection to the profession.

As a result, many journalists use pseudonyms, dare not publish pictures of their faces, and often lie about their profession. One woman I met at El Khabar, the largest-selling Arabic title, even told her family she works as a hairdresser. Hundreds have fled to foreign countries, and those that remain live at secret addresses, or in guarded compounds.

Armed police patrol the perimeter of the press compound in Algiers. It is forbidden to photograph police in any situation.
My first visit to "La Maison de la Presse" (Press House), in the center of Algiers, is a tense affair. We pass several "chaud" (hot) areas, former Islamic hotbeds, on the short journey from our hotel. Bodyguards accompany us every step of the way into this fortified old barracks, where the country's 20 or so independent newspapers are housed. There is a palpable sense of a community under siege, surrounded on all sides by high walls, watch towers and armed guards. Even these did not stop the bombers who killed four journalists with a car bomb in 1996. Their photographs adorn the walls of the newspaper offices, like those of numerous other martyrs.

Omar Belhouchet, editor of El Watan. One of the founders of the paper, he has survived for the past nine years in his position despite two assassination attempts.
There is fierce resistance here. Journalists such as Omar Belhouchet, editor and owner of El Watan, the country's leading independent French-speaking newspaper, see their work as a duty and a battle.

Since it was established in 1990, following a relaxing of press laws which encouraged journalists to create their own newspapers, El Watan has broken numerous stories about state corruption and the security situation. As a result, the paper currently faces over 20 court cases brought by the government. Belhouchet himself has been imprisoned for several weeks, together with colleagues, for reporting on sensitive security matters without state approval. As such, he has become something of a folk hero for the average Algerian. I only later learn, when I see him drive past in his old Renault, that he has twice been ambushed by armed fanatics (the bodyguards available for foreign reporters are too expensive for local journalists).

"Independence is a daily combat," Belhouchet admits with a wry smile. "But the first fight is against death. In the last few years there was not a week which passed without a journalist being assassinated or facing government censorship. That's why we can't live a normal life or live at home with our families, and why we continue to live like this."

Algeria's entire independent press, including newspapers, photo agencies, and the International Federation of Journalists office, work from this security compound in Algiers—under the watchful eye of government censors.
The same fierce independence is evident at El Khabar, the leading Arabic-language title, which sells 180,000 copies a day. In 1992, Djerri Ali, the proprietor, was the Islamists' first target in the press, when his car was burned. "They threatened me by telephone, by letters sent to my home. They want to kill me. Because for them, we are an Arab-language newspaper and that means we don't have a right to talk about them. We are supposed to shut up and follow them. But we have refused them, so we are targeted before the French-speaking newspapers."

A jovial man, reclining in an old armchair beneath a picture of a murdered colleague, Djerri Ali has also been imprisoned for offending a former Minister of the Interior. But "the first enemy is terrorism, the fanatics. The regime is not as much your enemy, because it never kills you." This is a phrase repeated time and again by every journalist I meet.

However, the regime is a constant obstacle. "It's like a Russian system here," says Khared, pulling on his ubiquitous Marlboro cigarette when I talk to him later. "The authorities are always saying, 'Why do you take pictures?' and demanding authorization. They treat us like spies."

Hundreds of box files at El Watan and other journals represent a detailed analytical and historical record of Algeria's recent, complex, and bloody history.
Belhouchet says the media is actually freer here than in neighbouring countries such as Morocco and Tunisia (which often ban Algerian newspapers), and he fiercely defends its right to print critical stories about corruption or security issues. Yet he admits the government controls all the printing presses—having closed down the only independent press last year—and the vast majority of advertising, thus giving it huge power over the newspapers. To date, 24 of them have been suspended for reporting on "security-related" matters, a broad category which the authorities interpret to encompass guerrilla attacks, human rights abuses, and the reporting of Islamic viewpoints. Until last December, the government also used "reading committees" to ensure stories conformed to official accounts. Many papers still face numerous civil suits launched by the government.

Extraordinary persistence has helped Saihi Horria complete several documentaries on rape in Algeria. She now lives with the knowledge that she is a prime target for fundamentalists who claim the death of one woman journalist is worth that of 10 men.
Without a doubt, one of the first names on the Islamists' death lists is Saihi Horria. A leading documentary filmmaker, Saihi has done more than anything to heighten women's issues and explode the myths propagated by the extremists.

Traveling in the field with a small camera crew, she has lived with female patriots fighting the Islamists in the so-called "Death Triangle," an area to the west of Algiers. She also made an explosive program about a woman who escaped from the main Islamic group, having been kidnapped, tortured, and gang-raped by the terrorists. A passionate feminist, Saihi also lives with her unmarried partner. This is a final slap in the face for the Islamic groups, who have repeatedly threatened to kill her. When I met her at my hotel, she told me how it was impossible to go to her nephew's wedding the next day, because she would be putting the family in too much danger.

Why take such risks? "Because all of us were condemned, women and journalists alike, by the Islamists. They threatened everybody," Saihi says in a strong, clear voice. She then recounts a long list of those she knew who have now been killed. "My main goal is to break their propaganda, to try to show the world how they really live. Although I work for Algerian TV, I work for Algeria, my country, first."

She insists her programs are "not about heroes. They are about ordinary people fighting back. The regime has done nothing for these people, so now they're trying to defend themselves. We need to write the real story of Algeria."

For Khared, who introduced us, photojournalism is simply a chance "to show the truth, life. I try to do every picture in my country. It's a wonderful country. But as a photographer I'm implicated in this conflict—I have to cover it. And I'm very sad, because I wanted to show other things about my country." Many others echoed his sentiments.

Religious traditions continue, with food provided outside mosques every Friday for whoever needs it.
The journalists have to be inventive with what little resources they have. Ali, a melancholic security correspondent with El Khabar, travels the country in taxis, too poor to buy air tickets. He gives his press card to the driver, telling him to hide it in his sock in case of any false roadblocks (a common method of ambush). Khared tells me how authorization papers can sometimes be altered to allow entry into otherwise forbidden areas.

Although those working for international media make a reasonable living, most journalists here have to survive on less than $100 per month—barely sufficient for their daily needs. Most write their reports by hand, as there is a lack of modern equipment available. Many live in tiny rooms inside El Manor, a slightly shabby, ex-tourist hotel turned into a fortified compound 30 kilometers west of the capital Algiers. There is a slightly sad, depressed atmosphere to the whole place. On a weekend (Thursday and Friday), you can see small groups of journalists sitting in the hotel's only bar, chain-smoking and drinking coffee, rarely going out. Many have turned to the alcohol available there to help them cope. Others simply stay in and read, or listen to the World Service and Voice of America, their tentative link to the outside world.

The cost of dedication can be high indeed. Deep in El Watan's archives, Hakim, the paper's economics correspondent, shows me a simple brown folder, gathering dust on a back shelf. Inside, yellowing photographs stare out beneath such headlines as "tué," "mort," "assassiné," and "engorgé"; shot, dead, assassinated, mutilated.

"Some of these were my friends," he says. "This one is Tahar Djaout," murmurs the thin, anxious-looking figure, pointing to an earnest, bespectacled man. "He was the first of us to die."

I ask him what effect these deaths have had on him. "We've lost our friends, our colleagues. We spent a lot of time with them, took coffee with them in the street. It's very hard to live with this." Yet he insists: "We will never stop. In fact, we are more motivated. It's a kind of resistance."

There is little else to keep them going—services such as counselling do not exist. Ali, from El Khabar, puts it thus: "We have a saying here: You need a little vigilance, a little courage...and lots of fatalism." He has been severely beaten by Islamic militia groups. A tired smile pulls across his lips as he admits, like many others, that he has turned to alcohol in order to cope.

An anonymous journalist who worked in the state-run public media told me: "It is a dark period. You lose many colleagues and friends that you work with. And you know that you can't realise your ambitions, due to bureaucracy. And you get depressed. That's how I've felt."

A photographer working in an area well known for Islamic party support; by his account people usually welcome photographers into their homes. The security guards are for the foreign journalists; Algerian journalists cannot afford them.
For Khared, it has been just as hard. At the beginning of the troubles, he received a box containing a burial shroud and a death threat in Koranic verse. "My mind just exploded!" he exclaims. "You think if you go outside you'll be killed—many others were. After that, your whole life changes. You change your house, you always look back, you change all your habits. You change everything."

On my last night, he relates the story of how his friend Olivier Quemener, a freelance cameraman working for ABC News, was killed. "He was my friend. We were only together 10 days, and I was supposed to be his guide. But the morning we were supposed to go to the Kasbah, I had some sort of premonition. I tried to convince the reporter not to go, but he wouldn't listen to me." Later that afternoon, he was told that Quemener and Australian journalist Allan Scott White had been ambushed and shot whilst trying to meet an Islamic contact in the crowded backstreets of the Kasbah. "I couldn't take up my camera for six months after that. It was one of the most difficult things I've ever had to do, to pick it up again." His eyes glisten as he tells the story.

Most journalists I spoke to agreed there has been an improvement in the security situation of late—no journalist has yet been killed this year, and the government is set to introduce a new draft press law. Still, the majority remain wary. One even said that there was a dangerous trend towards incendiary articles, stirring up religious hatred against Muslims.

Boys play soccer on an Algiers playground.
Omar Belhouchet is optimistic, if realistic, about the future. "There is a general amelioration here. We can go outside now, at least." Yet he adds: "The reality of the press here is not well known in Europe or elsewhere, and that's sad because this is a very symbolic fight, a fight I live inside. This is the journalists' fight, and society's fight, to build a democracy and a free press."