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Newswoman of courage cuts through the lies

Algiers - Salima Ghezali dipped her slice of cake-like bread into the dish of "meshoui", a thick paste of tomato, peppers and onions which the waiter had brought to our table with a flourish when Algeria's only female newspaper editor walked into his restaurant. She spoke quickly and quietly but with immense eloquence and courage. Journalists here are a dying breed - 69 have so far been shot, had their throats cut or been tortured to death - but Ms Ghezali could not be more alive, her words as sharp as razor blades, her humour as cutting as a knife.

Was she afraid, we ask? She nods at us brightly. "Almost all the time. Some days I forget to be afraid. Today? I was afraid all last night but this morning I woke up and the weather was beautiful and everything was OK. Sometimes I try to convince myself that I'm a good Muslim so that I somehow get divine protection. It's very irrational, the way we build our psychological hopes. Sometimes there are days I phone my daughters or friends and we decide to say a prayer at the same time in the evening to create a kind of `wave'. It's a game that's both serious and non-serious. It's completely irrational to create rites of this type - to prevent us saying to ourselves `it comes when it comes'."

It - sudden and frightful death - gets banished to the edge of our conversation as Ms Ghezali, editor of the 60,000 circulation weekly La Nation, studies the menu of cheese pastries and traditional Algerian brique a l'oeuf pizzas. "I always have trouble deciding what to eat," she says suddenly. "The problem of making decisions begins when you are raised in a country where you have no choice about anything. My friends have the same problem - they have made political decisions but when faced with choices, they can't do anything!"

Ms Ghezali laughs at her own joke, a shake of the head turning the long red hair on her shoulders. A divorced mother of two, she was a schoolteacher in the wild Mitidja hills before turning to journalism. She has been editor in chief of her liberal paper for two years. "Promotion comes earlier in wartime than in peacetime," she observes gently.

"There are a lot of young people who could be good journalists in Algeria but they don't have the right training. They don't lie on purpose. But in a country like this, information is held exclusively by the authorities - and this gives them an extreme margin of manipulation that enables them to control the journalists and makes them lie sincerely. A lot of journalists here are honest, respectable people but when they are told, for example, that a man has been killed by the Islamic Armed Group - the GIA - the journalists have no means to check, so they go ahead and say what they're told."

In the afternoon sunlight, Ms Ghezali's face clouds over. "There are terrible means of placing psychological control on journalists here," she says. "At the beginning of the attacks on journalists and intellectuals, the security services provided them with video-cassettes which showed terrorists torturing and assassinating people, cutting their throats. I know these cassettes exist but I don't know where they are.

"The security authorities claim that the terrorists made these cassettes to show their violence. But you can also see how it's an excellent way for the authorities to impress the people who are the conduit for information - that is, the journalists. I have spoken to some who have seen these cassettes - and after that, when you use the expression `political dialogue', they think you are a monster."

Talking to Ms Ghezali is both an inspiring and deeply depressing. Inspiring because of her bravery, depressing because of her pessimism and because there are not many Salima Ghezalis in Algeria.

The winner of three international press awards, including the International Press Club's prize awarded to her in Spain in July this year, her paper was temporarily closed by the government a year ago. "We told our readers that the circumstances for holding the presidential elections [which gave the presidency to General Liamine Zeroual] were not right. We said nothing would change. So they shut us down for two weeks. Unfortunately, we were right."

Last March, the government closed La Nation again, this time for an article on Algerian human-rights violations. "The whole issue was seized. Two weeks later, we were banned again because of an article about the `self-defence' militias, even though Amnesty International had said the same thing. The only news that the regime lets through is news that's in its favour. We can get scoops but we can't print them. That's why we decided to publish analysis instead ... but everything that's outside the system has already been swept away, and if a newspaper like La Nation can continue to exist, it's because we are prepared as well to work within the system."

After lunch, we drive La Nation's editor to her office to collect this week's edition, through the crowded downtown streets with their eternal, watching, unsmiling men. "It's a job that's intellectually very frustrating," she says. "On a weekly, you have to explain all the lies that have been told all week so you can explain what you want to say. No one has ever called us in to discuss our line but we know what we can't write. It's complete self-censorship."