Crusading Moroccan magazine closed

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.

As judicial authorities prepared to seize his assets 2007, Jamai moved to the United States with his wife and two children. The suit against the magazine appeared to go dormant. In 2009, Jamai returned to Morocco and resumed editing Le Journal.

“They didn’t do anything for two and a half years but then the court remembered me,” Jamai said.

In late September, Morocco’s high court upheld the $350,000 judgment against the magazine. On Jan. 25, a judge gave the final order to seize the assets of Le Journal’s holding company to pay off several hundred thousand dollars worth of back taxes, bank loans and other debts accrued in various legal battles.

Two days later, bailiffs arrived at Le Journal’s Casablanca offices, seized the desks, confiscated the computers and changed all the locks.

“According to our lawyer, it’s fastest bankruptcy process he’s ever seen in his life,” Jamai said in a telephone interview from Spain where he’s now staying with his family.

Even before the gavel slammed down, Le Journal’s days seemed to be numbered. After Jamai returned to Morocco, he said the government stepped up its campaign to convince advertisers to boycott the magazine. In April, he said several real estate companies who’d been the publication’s advertising lifeline suddenly stopped buying ads.

“April was the turning point,” he said. “After that it became almost mission impossible for us.”

Morocco’s communications minister, Khalid Naciri, said the many legal actions taken against Le Journal had nothing to do with press suppression but, rather, were simply a natural response to slander and sub-standard reporting.

As for Jamai’s account of Le Journal’s demise, “It’s a grotesque lie,” Naciri said. “This is a purely commercial affair.”

“He didn’t pay his taxes, he didn’t pay his debts, and he believed he was above the law,” he added. “Morocco is a county in the process of building a democracy and newspapers are free to publish what they choose.”

Press advocacy groups aren’t convinced. The Committee to Protect Journalists has extensively criticized Morocco for the rising number of jail sentences and crippling fines government prosecutors have handed to reporters here in the last year.

Last month, Dayem, the Committee’s Middle East and North Africa director, visited Casablanca, intending to hold a press conference chiding Moroccan authorities on Le Journal’s shutdown and general backsliding on press freedom. Dayem said he spent much of Feb. 19, the event’s scheduled date, meeting Moroccan officials who insisted free speech is alive and well here.

Yet, at the last minute, he said authorities refused him permission to hold a press conference. (The Communication Ministry disputes this, saying the group simply failed to obtain the necessary permits, but was free to meet privately with journalists.)

On the afternoon of the canceled event, a marked police car sat outside the intended venue, the Oum Palace Hotel in central Casablanca. In the hotel lobby, Dayem spoke briefly with a few

“What happened here,” he said, “is precisely what were told at 10 a.m. today never happens in Morocco.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the date reference to Mohamed Abdel Dayem's visit to Casablanca.