The Mounting Death Toll of Algerian Journalists
Deborah Baldwin, the former editor of Common Cause Magazine, is now a freelancer in Paris.
It's become a morbid kind of quiz game: How many journalists have been slain in Algeria since May 1993? How many different ways did they die?
The tally of deaths climbed to at least 49 in mid-September, when a number of Algerian newspapers shut down for three days in protest against the violence.
"In two years, the Algerian press has paid a frightening tribute to the struggle for freedom and democracy," the Algerian Newspaper Publishers Association declared. But the three-day strike, it said, "in no way signifies that the profession is giving up."
The protest followed a violent outburst that took the lives of five media employees during six days in September. It is widely believed that they were victims of guerrilla attacks by militant Islamic fundamentalists who are waging civil war against the Algerian government, though fundamentalists have claimed responsibility for only a third of the attacks.
On September 3, Brahim Garoui, a political cartoonist at the Algiers daily El Moujahid, a government-controlled newspaper, was found brutally murdered; Saïd Tazout, a reporter at the French-language newspaper Le Matin in Tizi-Ouzou, east of Algiers, was also shot and killed. The next day Yasmina Brikh, a journalist with an Algerian cultural radio program, was killed near her home in the eastern Algerian suburb of Eucalyptus. On September 8 gunmen shot journalist Saïd Brahimi and his wife, Radja, a TV technician, in their car about 75 kilometers east of Algiers.
Several weeks elapsed before the October 3 assassination of Omar Ouartilian, editor of the Arabic daily Al Khabar, one of Algeria's more independent newspapers. Authorities blamed Muslim militants. Militants were also blamed for the October 1 slaughter of 18 civilians who were gunned down while riding a bus to a village market some 205 miles outside Algiers.
Islamic fundamentalists hope to destroy the military-backed Algerian government and have targeted not only journalists, but also academics, artists, intellectuals and others who are viewed as potential opponents of Islamic fundamentalism. The extremists have vowed to step up their struggle as Algeria nears elections scheduled for November 16. On September 17 gunmen killed one of the independent candidates running for president against incumbent President Liamine Zeroual.
Formerly part of France, Algeria fought a long and bloody war of independence that ended in 1962. It maintains ties to France, where a recent series of terrorist bombs also has been blamed on Muslim extremists.
The violence in Algeria began to escalate in January 1992, after the government suspended elections rather than allow a fundamentalist Muslim takeover. Some 30,000 to 40,000 Algerians, most of them civilians, have since lost their lives in the conflict.
Journalists have provided a high-profile target for the extremists. "This is a totally new situation, unprecedented," says Djallal Malti of Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based organization that promotes freedom of the press. "That's why it's so frightening."
The reign of terror on the media began May 17, 1993, when Omar Belhouchet, director of the daily El Watan, spotted what he thought were his would-be assassins in the rearview mirror of his car shortly after dropping his kids off at school. He managed to speed away, narrowly escaping. Nine days later, after publishing an editorial condemning violence against intellectuals, novelist-journalist Tahar Djaout was shot and later died. He had been head of a newsweekly called Ruptures.
As if to further underscore the mightiness of the sword over the pen, Mahfoud Boucebsi, a psychoanalyst, was stabbed to death, presumably by guerrillas, on June 15. The next victim was a sociologist, Moham-med Boukhobza, whose throat was cut June 22 as his bound children watched. TV journalist Rabah Zenati was killed outside his cousin's home in Algiers on August 3. Then a pediatrician, on October 10; then a poet, December 28; then an Australian broadcast journalist, February 1; and a school principal, February 27.
December 4, 1994, was the day Saïd Mekbel died, the same day he wrote a poetic description of the typical journalist at Le Matin, where he was editor in chief. "That's him, the one who doesn't know what to do with his hands, other than his little writings," Mekbel wrote.
A quasi-independent voice in a country where the government often exerts pressure on the media, Le Matin seems to be a particularly popular object of the guerrillas' wrath. On August 20 Ameur Ouagueni, head of the paper's international news section, was shot in Algiers and died the next day. Altogether the paper has lost three employees since May 1993.
Algeria is one of the most dangerous countries for journalists in the world, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which has made a point of tracking and publicly condemning the killings. Two things have become clear, the organization observed in a 70-page publication called "Violence" released last May: Algeria's rebels have taken an unusual tack in targeting reporters for assassination rather than fighting with propaganda; and because of the killings the civil war is unfolding without benefit of documentation.
Part of the problem is that the government also exerts control over the media. "It's the main weapon used both by fundamentalist groups and the authorities," says Reporters Without Borders' Malti.
Both sides have been blamed for human rights violations. Both sides have used violence. Government censorship of the news may contribute to the hazards journalists face because censorship leads to the impression that stories are pro-government, a recent Reuters dispatch with a Paris dateline pointed out.
Firm statistics about the situation in Algeria are hard to come by. Because of the varying accounts that have emerged from the country since 1992, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) does not cite figures about the total number of deaths among journalists, pointing instead to the 18 assassinations it has documented during 1995 alone. It's also unclear exactly how many journalists have fled to France and other countries since 1993 – some put the number at 200 – or how many journalists remain on the job. Most Western news organizations have closed their bureaus in Algiers, though some retain stringers in the country.
IFJ, based in Brussels, recently announced that it will open an office in Algiers aimed at representing not only journalists but writers, artists and others targeted by the armed Islamic movement. Dubbed the Media Solidarity Center, the office will be run jointly with the Algerian Journalists Association and with support from UNESCO.
The office is expected to open in November in the Press House, which is already under guard because it contains media office space.