Ghezali's dangerous beat

Salima Ghezali has a tough editor's job that few men would wish for in a country where journalists are frequently targeted by assassins. Julie Wheelwright profiles a woman driven by her belief that the press can achieve peace and progress.

ALGERIA'S civil war has enabled women to take top jobs because they are dangerous positions, says newspaper editor Salima Ghezali with a wry smile. 'If there wasn't the war, I think a lot of men would have come and said, "No, no, no - she can't do that".'

But today, there are not so many men who would want her position. 'To be a journalist, to be an editor-in-chief, particularly when we condemn violence on both sides, it needs some strength, and I think I've got it.'

Ghezali, 36, editor of the newspaper, La Nation, has put her life on the line to speak out against the violence into which Algeria has been plunged since 1992. That was when the military authorities annulled elections and declared a state of emergency.

Since the fighting began, more than 50,000 people have been killed, including more than 50 journalists. No one feels safe any more, says Ghezali, but she shrugs off the death threats she regularly receives as 'banal'.

She has problems from both sides in the conflict. While the press readily reports the atrocities committed by the Islamist opposition, her weekly paper has been alone in documenting the government's own brand of terrorism.

'There are a lot of executions of civilians, and women have been raped and killed. The authorities use these violations against women to make propaganda,' she says. 'But the authorities make and commit their own very grave violations against the people, against women, against men - and these have never been denounced.'

La Nation compiled a dossier of evidence of alleged government complicity in car bombs, assassinations, disappearances and extra-judicial executions. It also gave details of internment camps for dissidents and pervasive censorship.

The Interior Ministry responded by seizing the 4 March issue of the paper last year, containing the dossier. Details of it were eventually published in France.

Ghezali was raised in an atmosphere of idealism created by the generation of women who fought in Algeria's war of independence against France and who, during the 1960s, inspired schoolgirls to think of a future beyond marriage and motherhood.

Her generation received an education equal to their brothers and believed women's rights would evolve along with democratic principles. 'When I was young it was the end of the war and I grew up with this idea that we would succeed in making our country free,' she says. 'That's why, ever since I can remember I was always involved in politics.'

Ghezali was a student organiser when she trained to become a teacher, then worked in the trade union movement before founding the Association for Women's Emancipation in 1988.

During Algeri's 'democratic experiment', she started a magazine for women, Denisa. Although it ran features on uncontroversial subjects such as cookery, beauty and health, Ghezali says it 'expressed a feminist point of view' and encouraged women to think about their lives in radically different ways.

When Denisa ran into funding problems, she joined La Nation as a columnist. 'I had this special page and it was a big success because I wrote in a subversive way about the problems of today and compared them with what we had lived through during the War of Liberation.'

Ghezali was asked to become editor in 1993 when the newspaper resumed publishing after a four-month shutdown by the government.

As well as fighting for press freedom at home, she has grown increasingly concerned at how the Western media ignore the lively debate within the Muslim world about its attitudes towards women, while giving disproportionate time to the extremists. The West's most persistent image of an Arab woman is a body enveloped in black, her face veiled and her eyes downcast. Ghezali finds this exasperating.

'Some feminist researchers in the Muslim world are trying to find a feminist expression within the Koran and have no problem doing that,' she points out.

Ghezali believes that until the military-backed government accepts that it must open negotiations with its Islamist opponents, Algeria will spiral further into chaos. In the meantime, she is determined to publish as much of the truth as she can, and believes in the power of the press to bring about change. (Third World Resurgence No. 89, January 1998)

This article first appeared in African Agenda.