Aboubakr Jamai is publisher of two weekly newspapers in Morocco: the French Le Journal Hebdomadaire and the Arabic Assahifa al-Ousbouiya. In 2003 he received the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists. He spoke to CJR Daily from his office in Connecticut.
Thomas Lang: You won the 2003 International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Do you find that Western opinion of your work carries any weight with either the [Moroccan] public or the government?
Aboubakr Jamai: I think it was received by the public as recognition of what we were doing. In our relationship with the government it is a big plus for us, because the government is pretty conscious of its image abroad. The fact that the newspaper got a prize gave it some kind of protection. It has heightened its profile and made it more difficult for the regime to repress it. In that sense, the award has had this beneficial effect in giving us more leeway in our editorial work.
TL: Has the award had any negative impact, in terms of public opinion?
AJ: Amazingly, none. You would have expected [it to], coming from the United States. You know that the United States has a very bad image in Morocco — it is one of the untold stories in this country. People think that Morocco, compared to the other countries, is one of the most pro-American countries. Regime-wise, it is. But not on the level of the population. I’m talking about American foreign policy. People do differentiate. I’m not saying that if you’re American and you are in Morocco that you’d get assaulted — that’s not true. But people are very upset about American foreign policy. If you look at the Pew Research Center study and a lot of studies and polls commissioned by American institutions, they show very starkly this dimension of Moroccan public opinion.
So, we were expecting some kind of usual conspiracy theory, paranoid stuff [from the Moroccan public]. … But it didn’t happen. It was taken very well. I mean, quite the contrary, it has really been perceived as a vindication of our work. Maybe it was the fact that we advertised the true nature of what the CPJ was doing. The other thing about the CPJ is that they are doing a very fair and balanced job in the Middle East. They were the ones to investigate, for example, the Palestine hotel bombings in Iraq. So all that concurred to make the award well-perceived.
TL: You mentioned … that the award helped in your protection from the government. I know that the Moroccan government has shut down your papers on two occasions in the past five years. How do you balance publishing hard-hitting news stories with the need to keep operating by not overly offending the government?
AJ: There is absolutely no answer to your question. This is the perennial dilemma. We’ve been struggling with this conundrum since the beginning. I think it’s a problem everywhere, but it is more so a problem in countries in transition. Saying that, I’m not really sure Morocco is a country in transition. It is even more complex a problem for publishers and journalists in our countries. You’re always confronted with … the necessity of having a sound business to keep your newspaper going [versus] your editorial line and the moral contract you have with your readership. We decided at some point — this might be perceived as being suicidal — that the most important thing was the moral contract. If I’m not willing to be faithful to this moral contract — to enjoy journalism — then I better do something else, instead of cheating myself and cheating the readers and everybody else.
That’s why we have been banned. Because we’ve tried to be journalists. We don’t have a political agenda. We just write to be journalists.
[So], I have no answer for your question. What can I tell you?
TL: Is it a constant debate in the newsroom?
AJ: It’s a constant debate. Even some of our readers, at some point, told us, “Well, look, if you have to compromise a little bit and keep going, then it’s better to have half an honest newspaper than no newspaper at all.” But it doesn’t work like that. You’re not half honest. You’re not half pregnant. So we made the choice of trying, without being, by definition, confrontational, to do our job as professionally as we can.