Algerian government urged to shield media from bombers


Diplomatic Editor

The Algerian authorities were asked yesterday to step up protection for journalists after an editor and a reporter were killed by a car-bomb outside the main building in Algiers housing the national press.

They were among 18 people killed in the blast on Sunday, bringing to 54 the number of journalists killed in the war between the government and Islamic extremists. The bomb exploded in front of the Maison de la Presse, where the main papers are, killing Alloua Ait M'Barak, 42, editor of Le Soir, and a columnist, Mohamed Dorbane, 45. A second car-bomb in the Bab el-Oued slum district wounded 41 people.

In Paris, the Foreign Ministry paid an unusual public tribute to the courage of Algeria's journalists and the international press watchdog, Reporters sans Frontieres, called on Algeria's President, Liamine Zeroual, to increase protection for the media.

"We pay tribute to Algerian journalists who carry out their mission with courage through great difficulties," a French spokesman said.

Algerian newspapers and television have been singled out for attack by fundamentalists, who abhor the Francophone media as a repository of French culture in a country they regard as purely Arab and Islamic. After years under Soviet-model state control by the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN), Algeria's press has been roused to defend civil society by the violence that erupted in 1993, using vivid and sometimes horrific reporting. Journalists have found themselves caught between the draconian clampdown of the security forces and the campaign of assassinations by the Islamic underground.

Reporters sans Frontieres said measures announced last Sunday by President Zeroual to tighten control on the press amounted to "censorship, an infringement of press freedom and the right to information".

Under the restrictions, papers and broadcasters must submit to the censor any story about violence that does not come from the state news agency, the Algeria Press Service.

The car bombings and the media crackdown were symptoms of a decline in the political situation. French officials voiced hopes for a breakthrough last year, after President Zeroual won re-election for a five-year term, during which he is supposed to oversee a three-year transition to democracy.

But the opposition Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), the main fundamentalist group, remains banned. Dialogue with the FIS has failed to make progress, while a murderous struggle has broken out between violent splinter groups of the movement. Up to 50,000 people are thought to have died in three years of conflict.

The security forces continue to carry out raids, round-ups and a shoot- to-kill policy against the underground, 13 of whom were killed last month alone.

The renewed instability is likely to threaten investment plans by foreign multinationals, including British Gas, in the country's natural gas and petrochemical industries. The government is resting hopes of development on such projects, seeing this as the only way to repay $25.7bn (pounds 17bn) of foreign debt and to reduce the 25 per cent unemployment level among Algeria's 28 million people.

The authorities blame Iran for supporting the fundamentalists and cut diplomatic ties with Tehran three years ago.

Yesterday Tehran radio said the bombings proved no "basic solution" to the Algerian crisis could be found "as long as the demands of the Muslim people of this country are ignored."