Aboubakr Jamai on Fighting Moroccan Government Censorship and How Al Jazeera Fosters a Culture of Debate

Aboubakr Jamai

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.

We’re not doing very well. Financially, we have a lot of problems. We have built a strong brand, which means if we were in a more freedom-of-the-press-friendly environment then we would have graduated to a daily newspaper, even a radio or TV station. … But we couldn’t, because our wings were clipped by this constant commercial warfare. We are boycotted by big advertisers and big companies who have contracts with the government, and by government companies.

But I have no answer. We try to go by the day, and you try to respect your principles.

TL: So you have to deal with the fact that many of the advertisers are in bed with the government?

AJ: Well, that’s normal. Look at what happened with Al Jazeera on an international level. You have satellite TV, which is doing very well in terms of audience, but which is basically subsidized by the Qatar government because the market is not responding. That is the problem in the Arab world. In a normally functioning market, if you have an audience, normally you find the advertisements to allow you to survive. The problem in the Arab world is, in order to have an audience, you need to be a little bit critical. If you’re a little bit critical, then you have problems business-wise. That is exactly the same thing for us.

[Given] the enmity of the Moroccan regime toward us for a long time, I’m amazed by the people who are still advertising with the newspaper. Because I can understand their problems. The cost of advertising with Le Journal is so high, [and] they are not there to promote human rights. They’re businessman. You can understand why people won’t advertise with you. The problem is with the regime, which is pressuring the companies not advertise.

TL: You currently publish a French weekly in Morocco and also publish an Arabic sister paper. How do you approach those two audiences differently?

AJ: At my level, I’m the publisher and the editor of Le Journal, the French paper. I’m much more hands-off with the Arabic weekly newspaper. But the editorial line is quite the same. One of the ideas is not to differentiate in terms of big ideas. Maybe the packaging is different, but the very idea of our endeavor is to deal with the elites who read the Le Journal. If you’re a French-speaking newspaper in Morocco, you’re addressing the elite audience. For us, this elite needs exactly the same thing as the other guys, the other elite — the Arabic-speaking elite. The same ideas. We don’t have two versions of our editorial line. We need to find the right packaging, but the ideas should be the same and the stories which might be of interest — we deal mainly with political and economic interests — should be of import to the French-speaking elite, and likewise for the Arabic-speaking elite.

TL: Just to clarify, you said that most of your readers are “elite”?”

AJ: First of all, this is one of the particularities, people do not read much in the Arab world. But in Morocco it’s more serious. We are, after Yemen, the country with the weakest readership of the Arab world. Just to give you a comparison, the first indicator is the daily newspaper circulation. The first daily newspaper in Morocco is the Al Ahdath Al Maghribia. It has a circulation of 60,000 copies a day. Neighboring Algeria has Alkhabar which is an Arabic daily newspaper that has a circulation of 500,000. So you can see the difference.

So, you talk about people reading, they are mostly elite to begin with. Then you have the second obstacle, which is the language French. French is not the language of Moroccans. They speak [a Moroccan dialect of Arabic], not even classical Arabic. The third obstacle is the cost of the newspaper. It is one dollar and a half, which is a lot in Morocco — a real lot. Unfortunately, our business model doesn’t allow us anything less, so were obliged to have that kind of price. Otherwise, we would go under because we don’t have the advertising revenues to make up for the lack of sales revenues. … So you have two barriers — the language and the economic barrier, which is the price. So that’s why I’m saying it’s the elite.

TL: The big story in the United States this week is the protests and rioting that broke out in Afghanistan allegedly because of a now-retracted Newsweek story that [claimed a pending government report would state that] guards in Guantanamo Bay flushed a Koran down a toilet. To what extent does the U.S. media impact public opinion in Morocco?

AJ: We don’t have a direct experience of American media. When I say we, I’m talking about 99 percent of the Moroccan audience, because [American media] is in English and very few Moroccans speak English. How we are impacted by the American media is mainly through the satellite TV channels and mainly Al Jazeera. So we are not counting on our state-owned media because they are in bed with the American administration. So they are not the kind of media that will bring us the true story of what is going on in the United States, so people are watching Al Jazeera mainly. … And also the independent newspapers like ours. That’s how they know what’s being written, what’s being done in the United States.

TL: You just mentioned Al Jazeera. Can you talk for a minute about the impact of Al Jazeera? How is it altering your business with the print media? How is it trickling down? And then your opinion on how accurately or how fairly Al Jazeera reports the news?

AJ: I think Al Jazeera has a very bad rap in the United States — very unfair treatment. I’m not saying that on some occasions they didn’t go overboard. It happened. One of my big discoveries — well, not discoveries, I had a hint of it while I was in Morocco — but having lived here in the United States for almost nine months, the TV is just awful in its treatment of the Arab world. The U.S. press, in general, is just awful about the Arabs, and Palestinians, in particular. It’s a shame. I don’t want to generalize and make a blanket statement — there are good media outlets, but for the vast majority [the coverage is poor.]

TL: Can you think of one story in particular that bothered you?

AJ: For example, I was here [in the United States] when Arafat died. I was watching TV. It was just awful. It was racist. There were racist things being said about him.

I’m not justifying it — I would condemn Al Jazeera for sometimes letting really extremist people who are, to me, criminals, express themselves. But then, I do think the benefit of Al Jazeera outweighs a lot the disadvantages of it. The real revolution of Al Jazeera is the debate. It’s not much of journalistic or technical revolution. It’s the fact that you have a roundtable with opposed views. This is a major revolution in the Arab world. …

[There is an idea in the United States] that if we have such radicalized political opinion against the United States in the Arab world, then it’s because of Al Jazeera and satellite TV. Let me just tell you that in 1991, 700,000 people demonstrated against the U.S. and the allies in Rabat [the capital of Morocco]. There was no Al Jazeera at that time. … So, to me, the real advantage of Al Jazeera is that if the Americans are really serious about democratization, they won’t find a better conduit, a better public agora, in the Arab world than Al Jazeera. Because Al Jazeera is critical for the majority of Arab political opinion. In Morocco I can tell you from personal experience talking to people in the streets, Al Jazeera journalists are stars in Morocco. People know them by name. It’s very amazing.

TL: How has Al Jazeera impacted your paper?

AJ: My paper, not much, because we strive to be an independent and fair and fostering debate kind of media. Certainly, the biggest impact it had was on the state-owned media. It was a devastating effect because all of a sudden your local TV news seemed awful. People could compare. Before you had the printing press [which was] somewhat critical, but the TV, the audiovisual media, were just state-owned media. Then all of sudden you had this TV channel and people who are banned in Morocco from TV can speak their mind on Al Jazeera. So it has quite an impact on the Moroccan TV. It has put in perspective what the state-owned media was doing

And for us, technically speaking, we are not in the same league, we are not dealing with hard news. We are more in the analysis business, and of course we try to publish some investigations, but you can’t beat a 24-hour news channel.

[Al Jazeera] participates in fostering a culture of debate, which is totally to our advantage.

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Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.