There have been mounting attacks on freedom of expression in Morocco lately, targeting journalists as well as bloggers as we consistently have been reporting on Global Voices Online recently. So constant are the attacks, that a reader might find the news coming out form the north African kingdom, a redundant rehash of the same old story. But what happened last week arguably marks a major turning point in the continuous campaign the Moroccan authorities are pursuing to silence independent media.
It took Morocco decades of struggle and the end of the cold war with an ailing dictator who, having lost his geo-strategic clout and sensing his death approaching, finally decided to relinquish power and open up the system in an effort to guaranty a smooth transfer of authority to his son, to see the emergence of a new breed of irreverent journalism. The French language weekly news magazine Le Journal Hebdomadaire, founded in the mid-90s thanks to an unusual alliance of benevolent capital and highly skilled western trained journalists, initiated a long line of privately owned independent newspapers critical of the government and the Moroccan establishment at large. Targeting the Moroccan cosmopolitan elite, “Le Journal Hebdo” rapidly became iconic, embarking on a decade long confrontational quest for factual truths, challenging the most powerful tenants of the local regime, revisiting official history, flirting with the red lines imposed by the government and exploring many taboos.
There was a time when Arab dictatorships used to extra-judicially clampdown on dissenting voices in a gross demonstration of authority. The popular rumor would have it that in every house and every street, in every newsroom of every publication government had its eyes and ears ready to report on anyone who wasn't in line with the prescribed official discourse. Today, repression of independent voices goes through a protracted but sophisticated process of harassment by a judiciary system under orders from the executive and boycott from advertisers keen to please the authorities. That's what happened to Le Journal Hebdo, which now faces closure after a commercial court in Casablanca declared the publishing group behind the magazine bankrupt, crippled by a series of libel fines, by taxes and an insurmountable debt – a development which many interpreted as the final and deadly blow to the publication.
The New York-based media watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the development and recaps the most recent judicial episode in a chain of condemnations and fines that eventually led to the administrative termination of the publication:
Le Journal Hebdomadaire was dealt a devastating financial blow in 2006 when a Moroccan court ordered that it pay 3 million dirhams (US$354,000) damages in a defamation case […] Jamaï (director and co-founder of the publication) left the country after the 2006 court decision and a series of government-inspired cases of harassment against the newsmagazine. Harassment of Le Journal Hebdomadaire appeared to ease for a time. But when Jamaï returned to Morocco in 2009 and resumed his critical journalism, he said, the government intensified its efforts to have advertisers boycott Le Journal Hebdomadaire. In September 2009, the Supreme Court upheld the damage award in the [defamation] case.
Issandr El Amrani writing on The Arabist blog says he received a message from Aboubakr Jamaï (Bou Bakr) announcing the official death of Le Journal Hebdomadaire. He writes:
I just received very sad news from Abou Bakr Jamai [Fr], the editor behind one of Morocco's most courageous publications and one that had been a symbol of the opening that began in the mid-1990s under King Hassan II and petered out under the rather aimless reign of his son, Muhammad VI. Bou Bakr wrote:
After all your prediction about the end of Le Journal has been proven on the money. Le Journal Hebdo has been shut down. Yesterday, 5, yes 5, bailiffs showed up armed with a court decision to take over Le Journal Hebdomadaire and the company behind it, Trimedia.. What is still unclear to us is the legal argument that led the judge from the receivership procedure of Mediatrust to act against trimedia. The only link is the title:”Le Journal Hebdomadaire” but the title is owned by the publisher himself not the company. Although we are waiting to get a clearer legal picture, we can already officially announce the death of Le Journal Hebdomaire.
El Amrani also wrote an op-ed about the issue on The Guardian/Observer British newspapers’ online blogging platform, Comment Is Free. He mourns Le Journal and warns about a worrying pattern of repression and authoritarianism:
Most of all, Le Journal tried to keep officials honest about the democratisation that they promised in speeches. It relentlessly campaigned for constitutional reform that would shift political power from the palace to parliament. For many of my generation of Moroccans, it provided a political education and an inspiring example of outspokenness.
[…]The most worrying thing is that its closure comes amid other signs of a renewed authoritarianism. The methods originally used against Le Journal have become a commonplace method of disciplining the press. Other critics of the monarchy, for instance in Morocco's vibrant blogosphere, are now dealt with severely. Political reform has hit a standstill, and the regime's human rights record has regressed.
Le Journal's sad demise is now only one of many signals that something is rotten in the kingdom of Morocco.
Blogger Jillian C. York adds to Al Amrani's comment saying:
[T]he closure of Le Journal does not alone indicate Morocco’s slide backwards. The arrests of bloggers Bashir Hazzem, Mohammed Erraji, and Boubaker Al-Yadib, of Facebooker Fouad Mourtada, of countless journalists, should speak for themselves. Yet, Morocco continues to maintain an appearance of moving forward, especially to the United States, which proudly touts Morocco’s Mudawana (or family code) and subsequent other new rights to women as evidence.
This is an issue that cannot, must not be ignored. Morocco, in case I don’t say it enough, is a beautiful place. I spent more than two wonderful years there, and would still happily go back, despite its faults. But in order for Morocco, for any country, to continue down the road of progress, free expression is non-negotiable.
Moroccan online news magazine Hesspress [Ar] deplores the deafening silence and lack of solidarity in face of mounting repression:
إن هذا الصمت المطبق إزاء عمليات تصفية المنابر الإعلامية الوطنية المستقلة، التي تدخل في خانة جرائم القتل التسلسلي، تفرض تلاحما تلقائيا بين المنابر المتبقية لإعمال مبدأ التضامن، كأضعف الإيمان، وبالتالي طمر الخوف والجبن ووضع التوافقات جانبا، لوقف هذا المسلسل الهتشكوكي الذي بات يقض مضجع “صاحبة الجلالة” في عز عنفوانها.
Many bloggers have been commenting on the development like Anas Alaoui [Fr] who bemoans the loss of a unique news outlet:
J’aimerais tout simplement remercier Le Journal et les personnes y ayant travaillé. Je les remercie pour l’effort engagé dans cette première marocaine quand on a cru à une ouverture, une certaine ouverture tout du moins. Je les remercie pour le courage et le dévouement dans leur tâche d’informer le public. Ils ont été les premiers à briser des tabous. Ils ont été les premiers à dire des choses vraies. Nous pouvons être d’accord ou pas avec les éditos écrits dans ce magazine. Nous pouvons être d’accord ou pas avec les analyses qui y ont été publiées, mais nous ne pouvons nier le fait que le Journal Hebdo a changé la pratique journalistique marocaine. Désormais, il y a un avant Journal Hebdo et un après Journal Hebdo.
The end of Le Journal Hebdomadaire signals a dangerous setback for the state of freedoms in Morocco. It pulls a thorn out of the regime's side but it also sends a strong message to the remaining independent media still struggling to survive in an increasingly repressive environment. This leaves the question about whether the online media and citizen journalism will constitute a breathing space for voices of dissent in countries like Morocco to vent their grievances, convey the truth and hold their governments accountable.