Reporters Without Borders voiced dismay on learning that Aboubakr Jamaï was forced to resign today as managing editor of the Casablanca-based weekly Journal Hebdomadaire in a move that confirms a significant decline in the level of press freedom in Morocco.
“For those who follow the Moroccan media closely, Jamaï's departure is a significant loss and marks the end of an era in which, despite the difficulties, it seemed possible to increase freedom of expression,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Today this hope is becoming more and more tenuous, even if it has not completely disappeared.”
The press freedom organisation added: “We pay homage to Jamaï not only as great journalist but also as man of courage, conviction and integrity. All those who pay attention to the struggle for press freedom in Morocco and elsewhere know what they owe to him.”
Jamaï's resignation was the only way to prevent the newspaper being forced to pay an impossibly large amount in damages. Jamaï was sentenced to pay the sum last April in a libel suit but as he is unable to pay, the authorities could have seized the newspaper's assets, which would inevitably have resulted in its being forced to close.
Jamaï told Reporters Without Borders that his only reason for resigning was to keep the newspaper going. “Staying on as managing director and therefore as the person legally responsible for the Journal Hebdomadaire would have endangered its survival,” he said. “The threat is not hypothetical, as it already happened in 2004, when the authorities sold off some of the newspaper's property and seized funds directly from the distribution company Sapress as a result of an earlier damages award.”
Two court bailiffs visited the newspaper twice in December seeking payment of 3 million dirhams (270,000 euros) in damages which Jamaï and one of his former journalists were ordered to pay in April as a result of a libel suit brought by the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Centre (ESISC) over a December 2005 article questioning the objectivity of a report it issued about the Polisario Front, which wants independence for Western Sahara.
Founded in 1997, the Journal Hebdomadaire has constantly violated taboos and encroached on the areas declared off-limits by the royal palace. It has repeatedly been the target of reprisals including aggressive tax inspection, an advertising boycott and a string of lawsuits.
One of the latest examples is this month's sudden withdrawal of advertising by a new telephone operator, although the newspaper had already received an order form and had placed an ad insert in its latest issue. By way of explanation, the telephone company said it had received “instructions.”