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MOROCCO: Pioneer of independent press silenced amid censorship worries

February 16, 2010 | 10:37 am

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Morocco is probably among Arab nations with the most vibrant press. But after a decade of openness, press freedom appears to be on the decline again. 

The latest victim: Le Journal Hebdomadaire, the first publication to openly criticize the monarchy.

One day late last month, Hicham Bennani was putting the final touches on an article for the next edition of the French-language weekly newspaper.  It was about the rapid rise of the Parti Authenticité et Modernité, or PAM, also known as the "Parti de l'Ami du Roi" (the party of the king's friend.) 

"But I had like a premonition that I was working for nothing," the 30-year-old said.  

His premonition proved correct: That evening, as the paper was being put to bed, bailiffs entered the offices of Le Journal in Casablanca. 

"At first they just served us with the court papers," said another journalist, Omar Radi, 23. "But 15 minutes later they returned with a locksmith. That's when we knew the end had come." 

One week later a hall at the Socialist Party's headquarters in Casablanca was flooded with journalists. They were former employees of the Journal and journalists from other media who came to show their support and to listen to the words of Aboubakr Jamaï, the charismatic 42-year-old founder of Le Journal. 

"Today I inform you that I am quitting the business of journalism in Morocco," Jamaï told the crowd, as pictured below. "I am not giving up my ideals, but it has become clear to me that serious journalism has become impossible in Morocco today." 

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Le Journal saw the light in 1997, at the end of the reign of King Hassan II. It shocked right away by publishing an interview with Malika Oufkir, the daughter of General Mohamed Oufkir, who was executed after a failed coup attempt in 1972. 

Ironically it was after the current King Mohammed VI ascended to the throne in 1999, and a wind of change blew through Morocco, that Le Journal's problems began in earnest. 

In 2000, the magazine was censored following an interview with Mohamed Abdelaziz, the leader of the Polisario Front, the movement fighting for independence of the Western Sahara. Shortly afterward, Le Journal was shut down after it ran an article about the involvement of the socialists (who had since joined the government) in the 1972 coup. 

Le Journal returned in 2001 as Le Journal Hebdomadaire, but after a successful first issue its ad revenue virtually evaporated overnight. According to Jamaï, the royal palace put pressure on the country's business community to boycott Le Journal. "An act of state terrorism," Jamaï called it last Wednesday. 

Officially the closing of the Journal is due to a towering debt: $1.7 million in unpaid taxes and social contributions, and a $360,000  fine for libel to Claude Moniquet, director of the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center, a Brussels think tank. 

Le Journal had qualified a 2006 report by Moniquet on the Polisario Front as "tele-guided by the royal palace." 

Moniquet successfully sued Le Journal, leading Jamaï to resign and take up a position as a university professor in San Diego. When Jamaï agreed to return to Morocco in the spring of 2009, Le Journal was burdened by debt. 

"There was no ill will on our part," he said, "but after paying the printers and the staff there was simply no money left to pay taxes and social contributions." 

Jamaï and others expressed surprise at the unusual speed with which the Moroccan courts suddenly acted on the paper's legal problems, culminating in the media group behind Le Journal being declared bankrupt. 

"There were many other ways to deal with the situation," said Ahmed Benchemsi, director of TelQuel, another independent magazine. "Le Journal was silenced for political reasons." 

Benchemsi has no difficulty admitting that his main competitor was the "pioneer" of the independent press in Morocco. "Le Journal was the first to push the 'red lines,' " he said. "It paved the way for all the others. In recent years it was no longer the market leader, but the symbolic importance of the Journal is undeniable. Its closure is just the latest sign of the deterioration of the media environment in Morocco." 

TelQuel itself was seized last year after it published an opinion poll about the popularity of King Mohammed VI – even though the results were overwhelmingly favorable to the king. Also last year Driss Chahtane, editor of the weekly al-Mish'al, was sentenced to one year in prison for spreading "false information" about the king's health. 

These are just a few examples of what Human Rights Watch last month described as a "deterioration of press freedom" in Morocco in 2009, although the human rights group also said the country still enjoys "a lively independent press." 

As to the why of this deterioration, Moroccan journalists can only speculate. "In Morocco, all decisions are taken by the king and a small circle of confidants around him. It is anybody's guess what the thinking is inside this small circle," said Benchemsi. "Perhaps they are feeling more confident now and it doesn't bother them so much to be accused of violating human rights." 

For Hicham Bennani, who has created a Facebook support page for Le Journal, the closure is a tough blow. 

"Working for Le Journal was always more than a job. When I was still studying in Paris, Le Journal made me dream. It helped me to get to know my country, and it taught me to look at my country with a critical mind," he said. 

Although Bennani readily admitted that "Morocco is not Iran, or even Algeria," there is a feeling that a period of relative openness has come to an end in Morocco. "I don't see anyone starting a new Le Journal any time soon." 

That may be premature. One of those present at Wednesday's meeting was Ali Lmrabet, a former chief editor of Le Journal. Lmrabet, 50, served jail time for slandering the king, and in 2005 was banned from working as a journalist in Morocco for 10 years. Since then he has been writing for the Spanish newspaper El Mundo. 

Lmrabet is back in Morocco now and he is toying with the idea of starting a new paper. "It is more necessary than ever," he said.

-- Gert van Langendonck in Casablanca, Morocco

Photos: A special issue of Le Journal. (Credit: Facebook); Below, a still from a YouTube video of a news  conference showing newspaper founder Aboubakr Jamaï announcing the end of the weekly publication he founded. (Credit: Los Angeles Times)

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