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Crusading Moroccan magazine closed

End of Le Journal is sign that Morocco's relatively free press is under siege.

Aboubakr Jamai, right, director of the Moroccan weekly Le Journal Hebdomadaire, listens during an editorial conference in Casablanca on October 23, 2009. The crusading Moroccan magazine was closed in January 2010 and Jamai has left the country. (Abdelhak Senna/AFP/Getty Images)

CASABLANCA, Morocco — For the security agents coming to shut down Morocco’s crusading newsweekly Le Journal, it was ostensibly a bankruptcy. The magazine owed more than half a million dollars in unpaid debts and back taxes and a judge ordered the seizure of the publication’s assets.

But Le Journal’s dissident editor, Aboubakr Jamai, described the Jan. 27 closure of his magazine another way. It was an “execution,” he said.

Since the Casablanca-based publication was founded in 1997, it has been a fierce critic of Morocco’s government and ruling monarchy — treading dangerous ground in a country where reporters at odds with the powerful periodically find themselves in jail.

Backers of Le Journal charge that in the last year the Moroccan government orchestrated both an advertising boycott and unusually speedy bankruptcy trial in a bid to silence the magazine. Moroccan officials insist the shutdown had no connection with Le Journal’s editorial line, but observers here and abroad have condemned the closure as yet another sign that Morocco’s free press is under siege.

“At the end of the day, Le Journal has a long history of writing very critical things about very powerful people,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem with the Committee to Protect Journalists, an advocacy group based in New York City. “If this is a coincidence, I want to play the lottery
with these people.”

The magazine has antagonized Moroccan authorities almost since its inception. In 1999, after Le Journal published interviews with the exiled Moroccan dissident Abraham Serfaty and his wife, local printers refused to continue producing the publication. The magazine had to be run off in France and flown in at huge expense each week.

In 2000, authorities seized the entire print run of one issue at the airport. Few topics are more radioactive in Moroccan journalism than the country’s annexation of Western Sahara, and the Polisario Front’s fight for the desert territory’s independence. For the issue in question, Le Journal had interviewed Polisario leader Mohamed Abdelaziz and put his picture on the cover.

Less than a year later, Le Journal accused Morocco’s foreign minister, Mohamed Benaissa, of embezzling millions of dollars through the sale of a house to the Moroccan Embassy in Washington, D.C. The minster sued for defamation. A judge ordered Jamai and magazine shareholder Ali Amar to pay about $90,000 in damages and interest.

Another defamation case dealt the magazine a devastating blow in 2006. That year, a Moroccan court ordered Le Journal to pay $350,000 in damages to Claude Moniquet, a Frenchman who claimed the magazine had defamed him in an article questioning the independence of his Brussels think tank, the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center. The magazine claimed the Moroccan government had steered Moniquet’s group to produce a report echoing its view that Western Sahara insurgents were a threat to regional stability.