Editors fired at from both sides in a vicious war

`If our newspaper continues, we won't let them sleep'

Algiers - Omar Belhouchet is either a journalist with a death wish or a very brave editor. Maybe he is both. Twice gunmen have tried to assassinate him; once the Algerian government sent him to Sekardji prison - and may jail him again if one of six law suits against his newspaper El Watan comes to court. Last year, his young wife died of a heart attack; and Mr Belhouchet has sent his two daughters to France for safety. "I will never leave Algeria," he says. "I am neither with the regime nor with the Islamists. I am a democrat." With language like that, you don't live long here.

El Watan - The Nation in Arabic - is a tabloid-size French-language daily, in layout a little like the French Liberation but printed, like Algiers' 15 other papers, on government presses. And like almost all the other dailies, it has, over the years, been suspended by the government for alleged abuse of press rules, threatened by Islamist groups for supposedly supporting the government, and constantly battled against the rising prices which could close it down forever. Now it is confronted by paper "shortages"; mysteriously, this does not apply to those dailies which show more unqualified support for the government. No one doubts El Watan's anti-fundamentalist credentials. The word "terrorist" is a punctuation mark in its pages; but so is the word "corruption", which is why, in Mr Belhouchet's view, he is now in so much trouble. His latest brush with le pouvoir - that oddly sinister word which only roughly translates as "the authorities" - was provoked by a front-page story which questioned why the Algerian Ministry of Health was purchasing a set of highly expensive medical scanners. Under new privatis ation laws, hospitals should have been able to make their own, cheaper bids and the implication - unstated in the article - is that someone in the ministry was taking a commission on bulk purchase of the equipment.

"The government must really have nightmares about us," Mr Belhouchet says, munching through crevettes at lunch in a "safe" restaurant; he gently declined our offer of a meal in a less discreet cafe. "What we have in Algeria now is not a system that wants to go towards a democracy. This is a system that doesn't want to evolve. Corruption has never been as bad as it has been in recent months. The government know that if our newspaper continues to come out, we won't let them sleep." Mr Belhouchet speaks darkly of "important interests of state" behind his problems.

He says he doesn't know the identity of the gunmen who tried to shoot him in May 1993 as he took his daughter to school, nor that of the men who chased him in his car down a motorway in January of this year. "The FIS [Islamic Salv ation Front] won the elections in 1991," he says. "They are a mortal danger for Algeria and for all the Arab world. I am a person who is against the idea of their Islamic government. But the greatest evil is corruption." Mr Belhouchet, 42, is a small, energetic man with short, dark, curly hair and big spectacles through which he regularly checks that his luncheon hosts are paying attention.

"All importations into this country are an incentive. Do you know that we are the biggest importers of wheat in the world? It's scandalous. It's because the government gave priority to industry and completely neglected agriculture. They import $2bn [£1.2bn] worth of food - this is a major source of corruption. Because of this, there's no interest in improving our agricultural production. I expect a government of technocrats to put a stop to corruption - if they don't, then they are accomplices to corruption."

Mr Belhouchet has gone after big fish. In April of 1992, El Watan published the contents of a secret government report which proved that Major-General Mustafa Beloucif, former chief of staff of the Algerian army, had been helping himself to Ministry of Defence funds. As a result, the general was thrown into prison. But generals can be sensitive souls; and it is the army which now runs Algeria's government.

None of this, of course, has spared Mr Belhouchet the wrath of the "Islamists" who are responsible for most of the 30 assassinations of Algerian journalists. Not that El Watan is the only paper in trouble with the authorities. The new French-language La Tribune was suspended by the government this week on the preposterous grounds that it was not also printing an Arabic edition; new press laws insist that all papers must print in the national language - those papers founded before the new rules are exempt. La Tribune, in the eyes of its readers, is not as anti-Islamist as other dailies - which may be one reason for its closure.

The press is facing other problems. Critical dailies have been told to reduce their pages because of a paper "shortage" - a cut which does not apply to El-Moudjahid and pro-government dailies. Now editors have been informed that the Algerian Press Service, the country's only permitted national news agency, is to increase its monthly charges from 4,800 Algerian dinars (about £61) to 93,000 dinars. El Watan and four other papers have refused to pay the new charges; the agency wire has now been cut off, depriving them also of access to the reports of the big western news agencies - Reuters, the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse. Sources here say that none of these three Western news outlets has bothered to complain about this restriction.

Mr Belhouchet, however, intends to soldier on. "Now we can't receive foreign news from the wires but we can listen to the radios, television - there are other ways of getting overseas news." But it is a grim outlook. Of Algeria's 800 journalists, about 250 have now fled abroad. On the back page of yesterday's El Watan, Mr Belhouchet printed a message of support for his suspended colleagues at La Tribune, directed at a government which says it wants democracy in Algeria. It shows the head of a large and governessy eagle staring critically at a single sentence which reads: "The freedom to stop publication is not the most glorious of freedoms."

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