Free Press vs Morocco: The House Always Wins

Free Press vs Morocco: The House Always Wins



Rabat- In September 17, 2013, Ali Anouzla, editor-in-chief of the Arabic version of the news website Lakome (Yours) was arrested in his home in Rabat after publishing a link to a video attributed to Al Qaeda In the Maghreb (AQIM) and hosted on the website of the Spanish newspaper El Pais. The video that is 41 minutes-long attacked King Mohammed VI and his kingdom of “corruption and despotism” and invited Moroccan youth to join the jihadist movement. Anouzla was charged with “inciting terrorism” and “providing support for carrying out a terrorist crime”, charges that could have taken Anouzla away for a very long time, 20 years exactly.

This conviction, of course, didn’t come out of nowhere, but it seems like if the regime had enough of Anouzla’s criticism that has started long time ago. In fact, Anouzla started his journalism career back in 1992, but the “trouble” began only in 2005 when he started his first newspaper Al Jarida Al-Ukhra (The Other Newspaper). The said outlet got shut down, but things turned better than expected. Since the shutdown, namely In 2006, Anouzla, alongside with Rachid Niny and Taoufik Bouachrine, two of the best journalists in Morocco in current days, started Al Massae (The Evening,) which until today is considered as one of the best-selling newspapers in the country according to the Diffusion Justification Organization (OJD).

Anouzla, mainly because of his daring opinions about the Moroccan Sahara conflict, which is considered by mainstream Moroccans as well as the government as the “National Issue Number 1”, got quite harassed and was often attacked because of that. “My articles were often controversial within the Moroccan political circle as well as within the media one. Because of their audacity and scathing criticism, these articles came under criticism from pro-government politicians and journalists, who labeled me a traitor and questioned my patriotism,” says Anouzla.

In December 2010, in the hype of the new wave of launching online news websites in Morocco, and only few weeks before the ignition of what has become known as “The Arab Spring,” Ali Anouzla alongside Aboubakr El Jamai founded Lakome was considered as one of the few independent online media platforms in the country. Lakome and Anouzla’s star shined after the #Danielgate case, especially that Lakom was the main news outlet that triggered a Scandal which saw King Mohammed VI give his royal pardon, on the occasion of King Juan Carlos of Spain’s visit to Morocco, to many Spanish prisoners, including Daniel Galvan, a Spanish serial child rapist who sexually assaulted 11 Moroccan kids and was sentenced to 30 years in Morocco.

Today and because of the trial Anouzla is still facing, is censored by the Moroccan government.

It is easy for anyone who has followed the political and media scene during the last months to understand that the trial Anouzla faced has another side of the story. “I think the arrest and charges are politically motivated and have to do with Lakome’s independent editorial line and the series of articles and investigations that exposed the corruption within the Moroccan state and criticized the real ruling powers in the country and how they have handled major issues,” Anouzla told Sada Journal in an early interview.

Also, this is not the first time the regime resort to such ways in order to get rid of the troublemakers. It actually dates back to many years ago, a time in which the regime has learned much more sophisticated ways, and in which it [the regime] knew what works and what doesn’t. And in order to understand what is happening now, we have to go slightly back in history, to the late 90’s to strike precision.

The End of an Era, The Beginning of an Other

In his last years of reign, King Hassan II knew that he has to prepare a convenient atmosphere for his successor and make the job easier for him, and at the same time ensure a smooth transfer of power to the new king, in order to guarantee the continuation of the monarchy, which lead him to launch in mid-90’s the “democratic transition” game.  The “democratic transition” started at the beginning with a slight tolerance towards the opposing voices, in addition to the put into practice of political reforms. As a matter of fact, although 1997 witnessed the foundation of Le Journal Hebdomadaire, the press didn’t start playing a major role in the “democratic transition” until king Mohammed VI held the reins of power following the death of his father in 1999.

Out of nowhere (or maybe somewhere), a bunch of young people who had a fine writing style got into the career of troubles, journalism, and founded in that period newspapers and magazines that will remind everyone, of the golden era of the freedom of expression that Morocco has once witnessed.

TELQUEL (As it is/Since 2004) and Le Journal (The Newspaper/1997-2010) were among the first publications to appear and knock the stands. Representing this new experience, some of the titles and headlines on their covers are still considered as the most daring, taboo breaking stories Morocco has ever seen. Namely “The Kings Salary”, “Sex and the Medina”, “Kings of Opportunism”, “The Jew in Us”, “Morocco and the Mossad”, “The King: Always Rich”, “Story of a Failure (Haidar’s Affair)”.

At first, the regime didn’t seem to be bothered by the whole thing. In fact, it turned things in its favor and started using the back-then undergoing change on the international level to brag about the level Morocco has reached on the matter of freedom of expression, and it somehow worked, especially that Morocco’s ranking in Reporters Without Borders (RSF) index dropped Significantly since 2004, as the graphic bellow shows.

RSF Index showing Morocco’s position between 2002/2009
RSF Index showing Morocco’s position between 2002/2009

 “But the honeymoon didn’t last long. Having exhausted the vein of the old regime’s flaws, we started investigating those of the new one. That is when the trouble began.” says Ahmed Benchemsi, founder of TELQUEL magazine.

The regime started reacting in the old-school way: Intimidation. Calling journalists to police stations and interrogating them for hours, for no reason but to terrorize them, seizing some publications for an edition or two, some minor lawsuits here and there. Yet, none of that seemed to work as independent mags and newspapers sales grew day after day, if not to say rocketed.

King and co. got aware of the weak spot of any news organization: Finances, and unfortunately for journalists, money was something the king knew how to deal with. This lead the regime to focus its efforts on that side: filling law suits against news organizations and ruling against them to pay big fines.

Free Press Under Heavy Fire

It all goes without saying that Le Journal Hebdo, symbol of free press until modern days, was boycotted back in 1999 by all the Moroccan printing houses. They simply refused to print the magazine, and as a result, the founder Aboubakr El Jamai, had to acquire a printer in France, and deal with the heavy bills of printing abroad and paying for the transportation of each edition.

A year after, and exactly in April 2000, the news magazine received its first ban following a series of articles about the ex-minister of foreign affairs Mohamed Benaissa alleging that he gained a good sum of money out of selling an official residence back-then when he was an ambassador of Morocco to the United States. In 2001, El Jamai and another journalist were found guilty after the case went to court, and they were sentenced to three months and two months respectively in prison. They were ordered as well to pay a fine of 2 million dirhams (~200k US$). Local sources said that by 2006, El Jamai’s debts amounted to 1.5 million US$ in fines and damages.

Le Journal Hebdomadaire lost another important lawsuit in 2006, described by a RSF statement as a “fatal blow”. This time it was because of an article about Claude Moniquet, Head of the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center (ESISC). The magazine accused a report made by the center about the Polizario Front of being “tele-guided by the monarchy”. El Jamai was fined with a 360k US$ fine. Prince Moulay Hicham, cousin of King Mohammed VI and also a friend of El Jamai, offered to pay the fine, but the latter refused arguing that he “prefers that the press should be left alone.” He then left his position in Le Journal Hebdomadaire and worked as a professor in San Diego University for three years, in which the mad campaign against the magazine stopped, or at least got lighter.

His Majesty the businessman

In Morocco, Mohammed VI is not only the king, or Commander of the Believers, but also the number one businessman. He is the owner of the biggest holding in the country: National Investment Company (SNI).

60% of the holding is said to be owned by Siger, the firm that groups all the major companies owned by the Moroccan royal family, although, officials from SNI refuse to comment on the issue.

Siger is Regis spelled backwards, which is a Latin word that means Royally/Kingly.

SNI holds shares in some of the biggest companies in the country, some of them are the major actors in their sector, as it is the case of Marjane Holding, which is owned 100% by SNI. Marjane is the leading Moroccan hypermarket chain with 18 million costumers each year.

The royal holding also owns 81.4% of MANAGEM, a Moroccan group that specializes in the extraction and making mines in its different forms except for Phosphate. The firm owns most of the mines in the country.

Above all that, the holding has the biggest private bank in the country, and holding shares in Renault, which occupies around 40% of the automobile market in Morocco.

Money Talks

The king doesn’t manage directly his economical business of course. He delegated his childhood friend and also his secretary Mounir Majidi to do that for him. Today, Majidi takes care of the wealth of King Mohammed VI, and with such great wealth, comes great power.

That power, and going back to our topic, can be used in different ways, including putting an end to independent newspapers that have been criticizing the regime in which Majidi plays a major role in. As a matter of fact, this latter himself is a hot topic of discussion for the “free press,” as dozens of journalistic investigations have been made on him and his not-always fair way of playing.

As it was said before, considering that the regime had all the economical tools to practice financial pressure on news organizations that it didn’t quite like, things went pretty smooth. It started with the big fines that magazines had to deal with, before the K.O kick through boycotts and bans.

Also, orders were given to companies to stop advertising in some newspapers, and that sadly is hard to follow or to prove legally since there is no tangible evidence. TELQUEL’s Benchemsi says that the boycott was never a written order, but rather oral instructions given on the phone and relayed through advertisement agencies.”

For the case of Benchemsi, orders to stop advertisement on TELQUEL had a direct and immediate influence on the economy of the magazine; it came as a shock for the staff. “they told us they received orders from the advertisers to boycott us,” said Benchemsi, who was also the editor in-chief of the said magazine for 9 years.

After that phase came another important one; a phase in which the justice department -that has been alongside criticized for being corrupt and serving the personal agenda of those with political or economic power- plays a major role in the Decision-making processes inside the court.

But again, it is all legal and no one can prove that what is being done is wrong, because once those independent newspapers face financial difficulties, they start to fail paying their legal duties to the government. This includes failing to pay taxes and social security fees for the people working in those news organizations.

At the end of this whole process, the court will simply interfere, by the power of law, to announce bankruptcy and seize the properties of the news organization, thus shut it down definitely, and in some cases where the owners of those organizations are ready to make some concessions to keep their work going, they will adopt a more “convenient” editorial line, but that’s another story.

[symple_box color=”blue” text_align=”left” width=”100%” float=”none”] youssef tifraouineMr. Youssef Tifarouine is a young freelance journalist and a senior student at the Higher Institute of Information and Communication (ISIC) in Rabat. [/symple_box]