Prized place in history for free spirit who dares to be defiant

The editor of a banned Algerian newspaper has been awarded the prestigious Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought. Robert Fisk reports on a woman whose courage and tenacity the government has been unable to subdue, despite putting her newspaper out of business.

Salima Ghezali is the first to admit the irony of being awarded the European Parliament's Sakharov prize. "I am certainly the only journalist who has won an award without a newspaper," she says.

Sitting at the back of the Djanina restaurant, the bright white light of midday Algiers burning through the red-tinted window beside our table, she grins mischievously at the thought. Her paper, La Nation, was suppressed by the government almost a year ago, but she still regards herself as its editor and still writes - along with her five staff - articles which will never be printed, just "to keep our hand in at writing".

Salima Ghezali smiles a lot, which is surprising for an Algerian journalist who still receives threats to her life whenever she writes freelance articles for the European press. "I've never been called in by the authorities," she says. "It's very perverse - friends of friends are told by 'someone' that I talk too much, that my body will one day be found in a ditch with my throat slashed." And the smile flashes again.

"Every time I win a prize, people write to the organisations giving the prizes - they send letters and faxes - saying I am an accomplice of the GIA [Islamic Armed Group]. These are the vulgar methods of our security services. But they know it's difficult to scare me. I just say what I think - it's not difficult for me to do this. That's why 'they' never try to contact me directly."

Her speciality is human rights. And that is what did for La Nation. "They put it around now that our newspaper closed for financial reasons - that's the government's version," she says. "We do have a debt to the [government- owned] printing plant but there are papers that owe more and which are still printing. It was on 18 December last year that we received a fax that we had to pay our debt of six million Algerian dinars (pounds 100,000) right away. We won a court case against the printers but it didn't do us any good. We haven't printed since.

"We condemned the government for increasing the conflict rather than stopping 'terrorism'," Salima recalls.

"We said the government were throwing oil on the fire. Then we were told that the printing presses had been stopped. When we called the interior ministry to ask why, they said 'we don't know'. They wanted us to exercise self-censorship, to be able to say they had not stopped us writing what we wanted."

Salima Ghezali's smile has disappeared now, her words coming faster out of frustration and anger.

"I kept taking the same page of criticism back each week because I didn't want them to get away with saying they 'didn't know' why we had the presses stopped. I took the page back three times. Then at last there was a communique from the interior ministry which said that our paper had been 'troubling the general calm'. Then another communique came, saying we were 'attacking the honour of peaceful, patriotic citizens' because they were only defending themselves!"

La Nation's owner, an Algerian businessman with a courage that matches a Mycaenas-like approach to his journalists, continued to pay half his staff's salaries for the first six months after the paper's closure, and still helps them out with occasional cash gifts.

Salima Ghezali could no longer afford to pay for her out-of-town apartment but survived on freelance articles for Belgian and French newspapers. Both her previous journalism awards - the Oscar Romero and the Alfonse Comius prizes - carried 50,000 French francs (pounds 5,150) with them. "This let me breathe a bit, to help pay for things," Salima says.

"After they stopped us printing, we went on preparing dummy issues. We knew they wouldn't be published but we kept preparing them. We prepared the first two whole issues of the paper, then partial ones after that. Psychologically, though, it was too frustrating, too hard. We all still write articles that don't get published, just to keep in the habit of writing. We tried to do freelance pieces in the European papers and have articles printed there."

Salima Ghezali's ghost papers - the front pages she set up in type without any hope of printing - still exist. "Le Tunnel des Legislatives" - the Parliamentary Election Tunnel - runs the cynical front-page headline of the non-existent edition of La Nation for the last week in April of this year. It publicises articles on the Algerian government's profits from a privatisation scheme and claims that Yasser Arafat has become a hostage to "a fool's deal". The page has been dutifully set up with printers' marks and corrections.

In its early days, La Nation sold 60,000 copies. A paper shortage in 1992 - an excuse which Selima does not believe - prompted the government to cut circulation to 45,000. Now, of course, its readership is nil.

It hasn't stopped Salima Ghezali's passion for politics, nor her pessimism. "More and more I am losing hope of a political compromise in my country," she says.

Salima Ghezali was talking before the proof of fraud during the October municipal elections was fully available. In President Zeroual's own constituency, documents proved that two opposition parties won an overwhelming majority of the vote. Yet Zeroual's RND won seven out of the 11 seats on the council.

One can imagine what La Nation would have said about that. "When will the people react to all this?" Salima asks. "In the long term, there must be a break with the status quo. I don't wish this to happen, because it will be violent and very costly. But the status quo cannot continue indefinitely. The radicals within the government refuse all compromise and, objectively speaking, they have the help of the radicals in the armed groups - and it is this which risks an explosion here."

Saying these things is not easy for a journalist in Algeria. One reporter who wrote that an "Islamist" leader was imprisoned in the southern desert city of Tamanrasset was picked up by the police and charged with disclosing state secrets. He has been in jail for three years - and he is still there.

Salima and her staff now write articles on the Internet with the organisation Reporters Sans Frontieres. Foreign human rights groups afford some defence for Algerians. And Salima's Sakharov award - runners-up included the free-thinking female Serb mayor of Banja Luka and a Cuban human rights activist - will give her further protection. "We haven't lost hope," she says.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Buddy DeFranco
people
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
filmIdris Elba responds to James Bond rumours on Twitter
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones
film
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Brand Marketing Manager - Essex - £45,000 + £5000 car allowance

£40000 - £45000 per annum + car allowance: Ashdown Group: Senior Brand Manager...

Guru Careers: .NET Developer /.NET Software Developer

£26 - 35k (DOE): Guru Careers: We are seeking a .NET Developer /.NET Software ...

Guru Careers: Graduate Marketing Analyst / Online Marketing Exec (SEO / PPC)

£18 - 24k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Marketing Analyst / Online Marketing...

Guru Careers: Technical Operations Manager

£Neg. (DOE) + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Technical Ope...

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones