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Morocco: Where Independent Media is No More

Le Journal Hebdomadaire 1997 2010There 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.

The heavy silence surrounding the liquidation of national independent media outlets, which falls under the category of serial killings, should impose a spontaneous coalition between the remaining platforms in the name of solidarity. This is the least we can do to fight fear and cowardice. We should put our differences aside to stop this Hitchcock-like assault on ” Her Majesty” (meaning the Press), who is at her prime.

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.

I would like to thank Le Journal and the people who worked in it. I thank them for the effort they made to make this Moroccan first. They made us believe in openness; an openness of some sort at least. I thank them for their courage and dedication in their task to inform the public. They were the first to break taboos. They were the first to say true things. We can agree or disagree with the editorial line of the magazine. We can agree or disagree with the analysis that have been published in it, but we can not deny the fact that Le Journal Hebdo has changed the practice of journalism in Morocco. Now there is a before and after Le 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.

10 comments

  • Great post, Hisham – thanks for putting all of these together!

  • How could we say if the closure was due to financial turmoil or to Moroccan officers?

    One can’t say if it was the one or the other ! May be both… For to me, many of Moroccan entreprises and magazines don’t pay their wage costs without being banned !

  • ABL

    The comments of one of the magazine’s reporters, published on the Huffington Post, and describing the magazine’s closing:

    This is what she says: “Even if Le Journal Hebdomadaire is something that will be talked about in the past tense, no one can deny what it has done for the country. Many people have called us traitors because we were too critical. I think it’s the opposite, we are all people who loved their country enough to never sell out. We gave our readers the best we could and kept them informed like no other news team. The legacy left by Le Journal Hebdomadaire will stay with all of us no matter what, and the fight for freedom cannot stop here. I hope that reporters of the new generation will not compromise and will take on the fight Aboubakr Jamai started 13 years ago.”

    The story at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/aida-alami/moroccos-leading-independ_b_444845.html

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Press Freedom, Global Voices, Jillian C. York, Asteris Masouras, Dominique Rodier and others. Dominique Rodier said: RT @abuaardvark: GVO: Mounting attacks on freedom of expression in Morocco http://bit.ly/9vuzzY #freemedia […]

  • Manus Mcmanus

    Although the media and press freedoms do attract special attention by commentators, it is only the tip of the iceberg. In fact press freedom should not be the main focus and top of the list as far as denouncing what is happening in Morocco. But one freedom of many that needs to be looked at. My main concern is the total monopoly of the regime of all economic activities. Living standards are getting worse by the day and what was in the past affordable by the poor is today out of reached by many Moroccans. The regime managed to burden generations to come by debts that absorb nearly 30 percent of current budget revenues to advance their interests both locally and globally.

    Many Royal business enterprises like ONA, a diversified conglomerate controlled by Morocco’s royal family literally owns the country and has multiple monopolies with the support of all arms of the state to literally do whatever they want. ONA today is going into many Global ventures and partnerships with Global players. So ONA has been strengthening its foreign ties. In recent years year ONA bought a part of Laidlaw Holdings, the New York investment bank, and many other holdings.

    Moroccans are simply livestock on a massive farm managed by ONA and other interests owned by the Royal family. Moroccans are a free range livestock, not people that can freely take part in economical activity without the consent of the regime. The rest is simply pantomime.

  • […] We have to Be 8 02 2010 A beacon of Moroccan independent press, Le Journal Hebdomadaire, has been administratively terminated. It is the latest episode, and arguably the most significant in a long war the Moroccan authorities […]

  • Manus Mcmanus

    I really do not understand why many people have been misled into believing for a long time that M6 was a new beginning for Morocco and that he will be any different from Hassan II. People gave him initially the benefit of the doubt and believed the rhetoric of a new dawn of Moroccan leadership. The honeymoon period is over and now everybody can see through the facade that is M6. Let’s not forget that apart from few symbolic changes at the top (ie: Driss El Basri) the regime remained intact after the death of Hassan II.
    The truth is painful. Deep down everybody new the reality of the regime, yet Moroccans were so longing for freedom that they were ready to believe anything.

  • […] Global Voices Online Morocco: Where Independent Media is No More Le Journal Hebdomadaire eulogized by Global Voices bloggers. A major development in the closing of independent media in Morocco. (tags: morocco globalvoices censorship press freedom africa) […]

  • […] considered a relatively safe place for bloggers and journalists. It is no longer the case. While some major independent printed media has been shut down and journalists persecuted, forced to exile and often maliciously defamed, bloggers have been […]

  • […] by Wikileaks this week is quoting me anonymously. Here is the quote from a post published on Global Voice Online: Summarizing the mood, one blogger on Global Voices wrote, “The end of ‘Le […]

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