The NI Interview
Nikki van der Gaag speaks to a prominent Algerian feminist
whose courageous journalism keeps her in almost constant danger.
NIKKI VAN DE GAAG
Salima Ghezali is a brave woman. In a country where more than 60 journalists and media workers have been killed since 1993 – the highest number anywhere in the world – she is editor of La Nation, the leading Algerian French-language newspaper, now banned for more than 18 months for refusing to comply with Government censorship.
Born in Bouira, Algeria in 1958, Ghezali obtained a literature degree and worked as a high-school teacher. In the 1980s she played a leading role in the Algerian feminist movement. In November 1994, she became Algeria’s only woman newspaper editor when she and a group of journalists took over the 40,000-circulation weekly La Nation. Today, she writes, campaigns and travels the world to plead the cause of peace.
A small, vibrant, dark-haired woman, she uses her hands a lot to express her thoughts. She explains with amusement how, as a woman, she got her job as editor partly because it was no longer seen as desirable.
Since January 1992, when the military interrupted Algeria’s first democratic parliamentary elections and banned the likely winner, the Islamic Salvation Party (FIS), editing a newspaper has become a risky occupation. Journalists are not immune from the violence in which at least 80,000 people have been killed, by extremists, by security forces and by militias and other armed groups.
Salima Ghezali is quite clear that all sides are to blame, but that it was the Government which in 1992, ‘made a clear choice for violence as a tool to control society’.
‘Now,’ says Ghezali, ‘the Government doesn’t know any other way to rule, and too many people are implicated in the violence or too frightened to speak out.’
Ghezali speaks with the passion of experience yet gives her analysis in the measured tones of a journalist:
‘When the war first began in 1992, I was afraid. We were paralyzed by fear. But then you learn to face that fear, to live with it, to integrate it into your life.
‘There is despair in Algeria today. There is the physical violence that you see in the media and then there is economic violence. We have poverty that Algeria has not seen since independence in 1962. And people feel very powerless. The political process now means nothing.’
Maintaining independence and speaking the truth is no easy road for an Algerian. La Nation had been suspended a number of times before it was finally banned. It demonstrated a rare impartiality by printing material by opposition members. For Ghezali, such even-handedness led to death-threats and a life on the road. She has spent the last four years never knowing where she will sleep the next night. A divorced mother of two teenage daughters, she explains softly how she has been separated from them. A shadow of sorrow crosses her face.
‘Everyone is affected,’ she points out: ‘It is a crisis at all layers of society; economic, social and political, from the rulers to the ruled.’ She opens her arms wide to encompass all her country’s people.
I ask whether she sees any solutions.
‘In January 1995 the many opposition groups in Algeria – including the FIS, the National Liberation Front (FLN) and the Socialist Forces (FFS) – met in Rome and together worked out a very concrete plan. It was called the Sant Egidio Declaration (also referred to as the Rome Platform) and it had a 14-point charter which included a commission of enquiry into human-rights abuses, an end to the violence and respect for human rights. But the Government saw this as a threat and rejected it out of hand and we did not have the support from outside that we needed.’
‘Now we need the world’s governments to condemn the political violence. Without this those inside the country can do nothing. We are bound hand and foot.’ She makes a gesture as if throwing a rope around her body; the body of Algeria.
I ask her about the daily, brutal violence – the stories of rapes and massacres that come out of Algeria. She gives a wry smile and leans forward.
‘You see, this is the first time that the Government has had an interest in promoting images of terror. If you think of other conflicts – Chile for example – the Government there wanted to prevent the world seeing the atrocities. But here, the Government blames everything on ‘Islamic extremists’ so the more the world sees the horrors, the more it shores up the Government’s position. And it is difficult to show any other picture when the media is censored or banned.
‘Of course there are extremists – there are in any society. But it is not Islam itself which is at fault – there are many shades of Islam and it is a minority who have been causing the problems. It was the Government that decided against democracy; that made a political choice in favour of war.’
But Ghezali is clear that by blaming the Government she is not letting anyone else off the hook. And she notes that such massacres, horrific as they are, are not exclusive to Algeria:
‘A French newspaper began a recent article with a description of murdered children and raped women... it seemed as though it was Algeria until the writer told you that it was Greece in the Second World War.
‘It sounds awful to say it, but it made me feel better. Such crimes are committed wherever there is war, particularly civil war. It is not just Algerians who do these dreadful things.’
Her dark eyes are sombre, remembering.
‘When you see so much death you just hope with all your soul that it will not happen to you – and you go on. There are moments when I feel I will not be able to survive for one more second, and then the moment passes, and I feel strong again.
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