Main dailies fail to appear in row over `suffocation of free press'

 

At least 25 people were killed in Algeria over the weekend and more than 60 have been murdered this month. But a dispute between the country's daily newspapers and the authorities means Algerians will know even less about the war that has ravaged their country for the past six and a half years.

Nine civilians in Hamma Bouziane, near Constantine in eastern Algeria, had their throats slashed on Saturday night. The Armed Islamic Group (GIA) has rarely attacked in the eastern region, which is home to most of Algeria's generals.

But the killing continues in the west also, where 16 other people lost their lives.

On Saturday, a bomb in a crowded Algiers bus shelter wounded 14 school children. The rebels have resumed killing policemen to seize their weapons, and residents of the capital worry that an outbreak of car thefts foreshadows car bombings.

News of the weekend's violence came from the official press agency APS and regional newspapers. On Saturday, government-owned printing presses refused to produce four main dailies - El Watan, Le Matin, Le Soir d'Algerie and La Tribune - on the pretext that the newspapers owed money to the printers.

Yesterday, three more newspapers, Liberte, Al Khabar and Alam Assiassi also failed to appear out of solidarity with the titles already silenced. The editors said they would carry on an indefinite strike. "Our decision to stop appearing is a . . . protest against government willingness to suffocate the freedom of the press and democratic expression," they said.

The Algerian government vaunts the existence of an "independent" press as proof of the country's "democracy". Most Algerian journalists live in government-owned housing under the protection of the security forces. By maintaining its monopoly on advertising, paper supplies and printing presses, the government holds the power of life and death over all publications in the country. All newspapers sympathetic to the Islamists were shut down years ago, and those which have continued to appear usually exercise self-censorship. Exceptions, like Ms Salima Ghezali's weekly La Nation, are subject to frequent and long closures - La Nation has just reappeared after 22 months' closure.

In recent months, Algeria's quarrelling generals used the print media to settle accounts among themselves and this weekend's closures are the result of what one editor calls the generals' "internal stew". Most of the "independent" newspapers espouse the "eradicating" line of the Army Chief of Staff, Gen Mohamed Lamari.

Several last week published allegations of corruption against his rival, Gen Mohamed Betchine, who is the chief adviser to the President, Mr Liamine Zeroual. Mr Zeroual has announced that he will step down in February.

The first victim of the newspaper battle was the Justice Minister, Mr Mohamed Adami, an ally of President Zeroual who resigned yesterday, saying he wants to be free to defend himself. Last week, El Watan cited anonymous magistrates who accused Mr Adami of "dissolute morals" and " unparalleled incompetence in running his administration".