Algeria Flirts With a Free Press

Fledgling publications have their wings clipped in the name of national unity

WHEN the Algerian government announced in August the suspension of three newspapers for publishing information damaging to "the nation's unity" and to its "superior interests," the action came as a shock to the country's very young but remarkably free and pluralistic press.

"Up until the suspensions, the common assumption was that we were beyond the danger of something like that taking place," says Omar Belhouchet, director of the Algiers daily, El Watan. "We quickly realized just how fragile things still are for us."

In the euphoria and rush of Algeria's democratization process, more than 150 new dailies, weeklies, and magazines on a wide variety of subjects and political persuations were created between 1990 and the end of '91.

But then in January the country's first free national elections were canceled and a state of emergency was declared after Islamic fundamentalists stood on the verge of a resounding electoral victory. Since then, the democratization program has been frozen, the fundamentalists' main party - the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) - has been outlawed and driven underground, and Algeria has slid into a syndrome of sporadic terrorist violence.

Much of the country's fledgling press (the most respected enterprises are less than three years old) is torn between full pursuit of the informative, "watchdog" role it aspires to, and acquiescing to the rival reasoning that the country's vital interests dictate certain limitations on press freedom.

"It's a difficult debate for us," says Akim Belbati, assistant editor of El Khabar, the country's largest Arab-language daily. "We have to realize that it's not just the independent press, but all of Algeria, that is in danger."

Most of the country's journalists supported the January cancelation of elections, arguing, like Zoubir Souissi, director of Le Soir d'Algerie, that "We aren't ready to see Algeria become the next Iran." The level of violence since spring - more than 200 soldiers and police killed, plus a few bombings that cost civilian lives - has convinced the press of the situation's gravity. Press seen as enemy

Despite the fact that most of the country's journalists seem sympathetic to the government's anti-terrorism campaign, the government of Prime Minister Belaid Abdesselam continues to treat the press as an enemy.

Accusing the country's private press of "corruption" and "treason," the prime minister said at a recent televised news conference (on state-owned TV) that "a private press does not equal an independent press," adding, "it may be independent from the state, but remains tied to other parties: money, even foreign powers...."

The statement only augmented fears that Abdesselam is bent on using the security issue to muzzle an often-critical press and stifle any hope of democracy's return.

"The anti-terrorism battle can't be allowed to hide the forest of government action," says Fouad Boughanim, Le Soir's editor-in-chief.

"I admit some compromise on the security and terrorism," Mr. Boughanim continues. "It may be true that our experience and professionalism isn't yet what it should be to cover those sensitive issues. But on the rest of the government's program, there absolutely must be open debate."

Government officials argue that such is precisely the case - that outside the "national security" realm, the country's press remains free to report, comment, and criticize. But by the newspaper suspensions, which since August have jumped to seven, the government says it is stating unequivocally that it will not allow public order to degenerate in the name of press freedom.

"Freedom of the press doesn't mean anarchy," says one adviser to Algerian President Ali Kafi. "The suspensions, which we emphasize were not liquidations, are a way of communicating our seriousness on that."

There is some evidence that the government is giving the press free rein in other areas. When the highly respected minister of justice, Abdelhamid Mahi-Bahi, was abruptly relieved of his duties last month, the daily Le Matin was among the most critical voices, calling the firing "a hard blow" to other government members battling "entrenched" powers, and a defeat for the country's anti-corruption fight.

Le Matin was one of the newspapers suspended in August - for incorrectly reporting that Italy, unhappy with the economic policies of Mr. Abdesselam, had suspended credits to Algeria. Since then, the paper's director has received a three-month suspended sentence for incorrectly reporting that the head of the underground Armed Islamic Movement had been arrested.

But many journalists say they still feel a "chill" from the government actions that affects their work. "The effect is a self-censoring all across the paper, including in advertising," says El Khabar political writer Omar Kahoul, whose newspaper came under fire for publishing an FIS communique. "You feel you can't afford any lively criticisms of the government program."

The troubles Algeria's young independent press faces do not end with the government. Newspapers also suffer from a poor distribution system, rising costs of everything from newsprint to news-wire services, and limited advertising revenue, especially for the Arab-language press. Buffing a tarnished image

But journalists here remain buoyed by a perception that, even in these difficult times, theirs remains one of the more independent presses in the region. "In Morocco, when the king says something, all the press sings the same tune, and in Tunisia it's pretty much the same thing, but that's still not the case here," says Boughanim. Journalists here also take pride in the fact that the circulation of the traditional government dailies has plummeted, while that of the independent press has raced ahead. "In the public's eyes, an independent press is now an acquired right," says Mr. Belhouchet.

Despite the threats they continue to feel, Algeria's journalists say there is one thing that is likely to keep the independent press alive: Even if the government is not convinced of the value of a free press under the country's current circumstances, it is conscious, several journalists say, of the valuable role press freedom plays in mitigating Algeria's otherwise tarnished image abroad.

"If we have one thing going for us, it's that this unelected government needs us when it tells its international partners that the democratic process is not something in Algeria's past," says Boughanim. "We're all they've got on their visiting card."

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