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Aida Alami

Aida Alami

Posted: February 1, 2010 06:21 PM

Morocco's Leading Independent Magazine Is Shut Down

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Last week, something extremely shocking happened: the Moroccan authorities took control of our newsroom and offices while we were working on that week's edition. They sealed the place and changed the locks. The next day, my editor informed us that the magazine had been pretty much sentenced to death and executed by the government. The reason it was closed: judicial liquidation but it is, in reality, a political decision to shut down this icon of the free press in Morocco.

What happened is so unfair, so hard to believe, not only sad but a real shame for my country to have come to this.

I had been working only for a few months for Le Journal Hebdomadaire, a weekly news magazine, very critical of the government and known for its hard-hitting investigative journalism, in a country where such criticism is almost non-existent and the majority of media outlets have very strict guidelines on the way they work and what they are allowed to disclose. The amazing way the publication contributed to the freedom of the press was recognized internationally and its founder, Aboubakr Jamai, was even honored by CPJ with their Press Freedom Award in 2003.

It is something we knew would eventually happen. But I always thought that no matter what, the government would keep on giving us a hard time -- never truly make us disappear.

How did all of this happen?

This is not something that occurred overnight. The magazine was founded in 1997 and changed the face of journalism in the country. It has been daring, scandalous, and insolent. The government has tried everything possible to intimidate the magazine and shut the journalists up. But it continued fighting and telling the truth until the very last moments. Le Journal Hebdomadaire, had been harassed financially for years, boycotted by advertisers, and it had lost a trivial trial, had to pay a huge fine that it couldn't afford (more details on the CPJ website, here).

When I arrived in Morocco a few months ago, after years of living in New York City, I had no desire to work for the Moroccan press. I really felt that the news coverage was an insult to one's intelligence: very consensual news at best and propaganda, imagined successes and lies for most of the news outlets.

I was in Morocco temporarily, and waiting to decide on my career and find a new country to move to and work at, but things weren't looking too great and I decided to find something to do here. I knew that there were a couple of exceptions to the rule of mediocrity in the Moroccan press, especially a magazine that had been boldly denouncing government misconducts and surviving despite all the attempts to shut it down. I wasn't sure if I were ready to take on that challenge -- join a newsroom that led, every single day, a new fight in the name of informing people.

One day, I was contacted by an old friend who worked at Le Journal Hebdomadaire. They were having problems, many of their reporters had quit. I came to learn later that it was a real challenge and one had to be mentally strong to lead the fight every day. They had huge financial difficulties because they were boycotted by a massive number of advertisers. I decided to give it a try and at least meet them. I had to chance to meet personally Aboubakr Jamai, "Boubker", I was very excited. He had been an inspiration for me, years ago, before I had even decided to go into journalism. I remembered that he carried a hunger strike a few years ago when I was still in high school and I will never forget how courageous I thought he was. That is the man who started the first truly independent news organization in Morocco in 1997 at the age of 29. Le Journal Hebdomadaire, had a glorious past of breaking news, bold interviews with opponents to the regime, and tough investigative stories. Meeting him made me instantly want to be a part of this very special publication.

I had to learn everything from scratch. My only journalistic experience was in New York City where reporters are constitutionally protected by the first amendment. My first shock came when I was told to watch out what information I gave over the phone because we were all under surveillance. The minister of communications hung up on me before I could even finish my sentence when I politely called him for an interview and told him what paper I worked for. Everywhere, people were wary to talk to us and I came to understand that being a journalist didn't only require professionalism and writing skills but real guts.

Even if my experience was different in the way I gathered my information, it was in no way different in the freedom I had in writing my articles. My editor gave us complete freedom of subjects and words. I was never censored, which I thought was completely normal until I had conversations with other reporters that I met during press conferences who told me that every sentence, every word they used could never cross set boundaries. That's when I realized how lucky I was but even more how important it was for Le Journal Hebdomadaire to continue to exist.

My fondest memories while working at "Le Journal Hebdomadaire" was this unbreakable support among the team. Everyone was ready to fight for the others in the name of justice and telling the truth. We all worked countless hours and never feared what could happen to us. When the controversy around the sahrawi activist Aminatou Haidar broke, we were the only news organization to interview her and tell her side of the story, which now I realize probably accelerated the death of the magazine. We always wrote about the underdogs and denounced the wrongdoings of politicians or others.

I wonder who will do that now that the magazine no longer exists.

Even if "Le Journal Hebdomadaire," is something that will be talked about in the past, 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.