The head of Le Journal Hebdomadaire, Aboubakeur Jamai, Wednesday announced his decision to go into exile in protest against the closure of his newspaper. Moroccan authorities claim the independent weekly newspaper was closed for non-payment of “significant debts”. Journalists from the newspaper think otherwise. They believe it is nothing but a political gimmick. A Human Rights Watch report, published a week ago, talks about the liberticidal excesses of the Moroccan Kingdom.
“Conditions in Morocco have deteriorated”, the latest global report by Human Rights Watch on human rights, published January 27, 2010, denounced. According to Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the NGO for the Middle East and North Africa, the government aided, by complaisant courts, used repressive legislation to punish and imprison peaceful opponents, especially those who violate taboos against criticizing the king or the monarchy, questioning the ‘Moroccanness’ of Western Sahara, or ‘denigrating’ Islam.”
Le Journal Hebdomadaire is the latest victim of the Moroccan repression of freedom of expression. “I am through with journalism in Morocco, and I have decided to go into voluntary exile”, said Aboubakeur Jamai, editor of Le Journal Hebdomadaire at a press conference in Casablanca Wednesday. Bogged down by debt after thirteen years of existence, the doors of the irreverent publication have been nailed shut never to be opened again. Friday, January 29, Aboubakeur Jamai and Ali Amar, one of the former editors of the newspaper, had their bank accounts frozen by the courts. “They can throw us into jail. Anything can happen,” Mr. Jamai, winner of the 2003 International Prize for press Freedom, said.
Wednesday, January 27, 17.30, door locks were changed and premises sealed. Two days earlier, the courts had ordered the compulsory liquidation of Trimedia, the editors of the newspaper, blaming the decision on a non-payment of debts to the Social Security, tax administration and banks. “The debt exceeds 5 million dirhams (about 450 000 euros),” revealed one of the lawyers representing the Moroccan administration, Mr. Abdelkebir Tabih.
Mr. Jamai evokes an orchestration of economic pressure by the country’s leadership. “In 2009, an agreement was reached with the Social Security to spread repayment of our debts… The financial state of the Journal started getting better. Advertising returned. And then all of a sudden advertisers boycotted us following an order from consultants at the Royal Palace. Our death warrant was signed.”
The newspaper’s financial woes and legal headaches did not begin only yesterday. In 2006, an appeals court upheld the criminal convictions of the paper’s journalists for the defamation of a research institute based in Brussels, issuing fines and damages to the tune of 3.1 million dirhams (about 384 000 USD), an amount that far exceeds those previously determined in a suit for defamation.
The newspaper became synonymous to trouble in the Moroccan media landscape. And yet Le Journal Hebdomadaire, Launched on a shoestring budget in 1997, had become a symbol of the expansion of freedom of expression achieved two years before the end of the late Hassan II’s reign. An example of the level of freedom they achieved was their decision to channel the Kingdom’s number one enemy, the leader of the Polisario Front (Nationalist Movement seeking the independence of the Saharawi people), Mohamed Abdelaziz.
Others, besides Le Journal Hebdomadaire, have also suffered the fiery wrath of the government in recent months. And the Human Rights Watch report points out four newspapers that have fallen victim. The publication of a cartoon depicting King Mohammed VI’s cousin on September 27, 2009 by Akhbar al-Youm attracted a 9000 euro fine and a suspended prison sentence for the editor, Toufiq Bouachrine, and his cartoonist, Khalid Gueddar. Driss Chahtane, editor of the weekly al-Mish’al was sentenced to a one year prison term for publishing “in bad faith” “false information” about the king’s health last September.
Two dailies, Tel Quel and Nichan, published the results of a poll in August 4, 2009 in which 91% of Moroccans surveyed indicated that the first ten years of the king had been “positive”. Surprisingly, the rather flattering news was criticised as lèse-majesty, and the two weeklies had their editions seized. One hundred thousand copies of magazines were destroyed by the authorities as the publishers stood by and watched helplessly without the slightest possibility to appeal the case in court.
Fines, blackouts, newspaper seizures, suspension of publication, imprisonment or suspended prison sentences, the Moroccan kingdom continues to intimidate the media and muzzle the local press.
Food for thought: “Without the liberty to blame, no praise can be flattering,” wrote Pierre-Augustin Caron Beaumarchais (1732-1799).