How Reporters Cheat Assassins In Algeria's War With Islamists

Ahmed Ancer knew he was in trouble when his name started to appear on "death lists" circulated by militant opponents to Algeria's government.

Like many Algerian journalists, Mr. Ancer, head of regional coverage for El-Watan newspaper, works hard to do his job covering the news. That often means reporting on the violent struggle between militant Islamists and government forces that has left 60,000 dead in six years.

The word "risk" has always ranked high here in the job description for journalists, who face a dual threat: extremist violence on one side and the wrath of the security forces who often define what can be published on the other. Tough security conditions mean that reporters often aren't able to get a story.

Like many colleagues, Ancer has been denounced as pro-government by Islamists, who have waged a violent insurgency since the military-led government cancelled elections in 1992 that Islamic parties were poised to win.

He received threatening letters, telephone calls, and, after several television appearances, found his name cropping up on the lists of journalists to be killed.

In a country where 59 journalists have already been assassinated since the civil conflict began - even proofreaders and drivers are targeted - the threats are taken seriously.

"Terrorists came to my house 10 times this year," says Ancer, "safe" in his offices at El-Watan, which is housed in a fortified, former police barracks kept under 24-hour-protection.

"They tried to break down the door, but I turned my house into a fort with two steel doors," he says. "For two years I was afraid to go out, that I would be recognized on the street.

"My neighbors are brave people, but the fact that I live by them is a problem. They have changed their attitude."

Safety in seclusion

Ancer moved out of his apartment in May 1995, and like several hundred other Algerian journalists, has felt forced to move into a government-protected hotel outside Algiers. Some 500 journalists have fled the country altogether.

"I'm afraid the next step will be kidnapping the children," he says, though he feels he has little choice but to stay.

"Protection" by the authorities comes with its own price, however, creating a Catch-22 for independent journalists.

El-Watan, known to have good contacts with the security forces, nevertheless had its operations suspended twice in 1993 and 1994, and Ancer and other senior editors and writers were arrested and held for eight days in January 1995.

Limits are placed on reports of antiterrorist operations, and few details about security-force losses or atrocities ever make it into print.

By decree, no security issue can be published unless it has been transmitted first in an official communiqu.

Newspapers have defied restrictions before by secretly agreeing to publish similarly critical stories on the same day.

But because the government of President Liamine Zeroual is itself torn between showing the atrocities of the insurgents, and trying to convince the population that it is regaining control, the parameters are always in flux.

A June Human Rights Watch report notes that "the government has exercised vigorous censorship of the independent press through various means, ranging from banning newspapers and jailing reporters, to exerting financial pressure on the private print media."

The state of emergency declared in 1992 means that anything deemed by the regime to be "harmful information" can bring a swift response.

La Nation newspaper, the human rights report says, has been suspended nine times in two years, and its owner charged with "endangering state security" for publishing an interview with a leader of the outlawed Islamic Salvation Front party.

Its editor, Salima Ghezali, says she refuses to cover security incidents under such restrictions, and is critical of colleagues who work under government protection.

"Most of the press are living in a closed circle, and it is a French-speaking circle," she said. "We [the people of La Nation] are living all over. Many of the others are losing their convictions."

But the campaign of violence has convinced many that the threats they face are too much to withstand alone.

"Now Algerian journalists are very tired," says Ancer. "But I don't have another country to go to, this is my only job, and now is the best time to fight against this violence."

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