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The Price of Freedom

   

When journalist Nadia Lamlili attended the sentencing phase of the Nichane trial in support of her colleagues Driss Ksikes and Sanaa Elaji, she ran into a group of Al Adl Wal Ihssane supporters who were there for a separate hearing.

    When they found out I was from Tel Quel and the two journalists from Nichane had been condemned, they smiled and told me, “That’s the price of freedom!”

Maybe, but the price—a three year suspended sentence and a $9200 fine for each journalist, plus a two-month ban for the magazine—is a pittance compared to the price Aboubakr Jamaï is paying as the founder of the rival newsweekly Le Journal Hébdomadaire. After years of playing cat and mouse with him on account of his uncompromisingly independent journalism, which meets the highest professional standards, the Moroccan State finally slammed him with a $350,000 fine a few months ago, a fine he cannot pay. Since the fine is on Jamaï personally and not his magazine, to save the magazine he has decided to step down as its director and flee the country permanently with his family. THAT is the price of freedom, my friends.

AbMoul was the first Moroccan blogger I know of to cover this story. In a January 18 post he wonders why the Nichane case has gotten so much more attention.

    I was a bit surprised by the call to arms that was raised, rightfully, in the Moroccan blogosphere by the Nichane affair, while the forced departure of Jamaï has stirred very little emotion. Let us recall, for those who might not know it, that this departure is the result of the same process adopted by the Moroccan power elite to muzzle and silence all discordant voices.

In an earlier post, the day before the press conference in which Jamaï officially announced his decision, AbMoul reminisced about the influence Le Journal had on his life, and the lives of many in his generation.

    I remember the years of my youth, when I discovered, fascinated—thanks in large part to Le Journal—tales of military coups, people ignored until then in the media and the official hagiographies, a new discourse on a new political structure where the King would no longer have precedence. […] It is not without condescension and irony that I remember the young man I was, on the café terrace, holding a copy of Le Journal that spoke of the disappearance of Ben Barka, and secretly trembling before the stares of my neighbors that I imagined to be too insistent, believing that it was a bold or even reckless thing to do.

I should add that even last summer, as a 42-year-old American, I sometimes had the same feeling when reading a copy of Le Journal in public. Is it really okay to look at a picture of General Oufkir? Perhaps some of the people at the neighboring tables are police informers? Has the teacher left the room only to catch badly behaved students when she returns? Living in Morocco is like that, and Le Journal was my indispensable resource for understanding the inner workings of Moroccan politics, and the unspoken secrets of its recent history.

Ibn Kafka offers the most detailed explanation of the case I have found to date, with his January 19 summary of the press conference that had taken place the day before, “at the five-star Casablanca hotel the Anfa Palace.”

    Boubker Jamaï, founder and editor-in-chief of the publication Le Journal Hébdomadaire, was forced to exile himself from Morocco, where justice under orders had condemned him to a three million dirham fine with interest, for having said that the Franco-Belgian Zionist and neocon Claude Moniquet was sold to the Moroccan secret service, when Moniquet bragged on his own website that he sold his services to whatever intelligence agencies would pay him….
    Boubker recalled that well intentioned people had soothed him with sweet songs, saying, after the original verdict, that it would be softened on appeal, and after the appeal, that the sentence would not be executed, and after the first visit from the bailiff three weeks ago, that they would not insist. And Boubker pointed out that all this was false. “There are thieves in power who won’t shy from any vileness.” He spelled out the steps taken to execute the sentence by the judicial authorities, with a promptness in this case that would annoy a great many divorced mothers, laid-off workers or badly insured people.

The fine was levied against Jamaï rather than against his magazine, leading him to conclude that the best chance of saving Le Journal would be to put as much distance as possible between him and it.

    From that point on, Boubker explained to us, only his resignation, and his departure from Morocco, could save Le Journal Hébdomadaire and its parent company. Politically…the disappearance of Boubker Jamaï will doubtless return Moroccan justice and its bailiffs to their habitual indolence, and perhaps allow Le Journal and its parent company to stay alive. But…it will be a precarious life, susceptible at each instant to being interrupted by pulling the tubes that keep it on life support.
    On the personal level as well, in order to live from his work, Boubker must quit Morocco, since all his professional earnings in Morocco can be seized. This shows how a judgment that is iniquitous at its base, but can seem “moderate” because there is no prison sentence, may lead to terrible consequences, the forced exile of a journalist. And he is not at the end of his troubles. If he doesn’t pay the three million dirhams, he could, if he lives abroad, have problems returning to Morocco, because he would risk arrest….
    I will allow myself first of all a tribute to Boubker Jamaï, a man of integrity cut from exceptional cloth, indispensable to Morocco if it is to evolve in the right sense, with an intellectual maturity that is also exceptional, managing to lift itself above the admiration flowing toward it to cast an objective eye on the situation. I would also like to say that the time is past for reproaching one or another independent journal for its editorial line, because they are all touched by the wrath of a politicized and servile justice system. The hour has come for an unconditional mobilization in defense of freedom of expression.

With his usual eloquence and lucidity, Larbi offered this tribute to Jamaï on his blog on January 21.

    What does Aboubakr Jamaï say that is so “frightful and monstrous”? That a holder of public authority, even the King of Morocco, must be accountable for his actions and his results. That the entourage of the head of state must not mix itself up in the private sector, or they will find themselves with conflicts of interest…. That it is high time to be done with absolutism, corruption and despotism, and that universal suffrage must be the source of power…. That the separation of powers isn’t a luxury, but a fundamental necessity for democracy. That torture and damage to fundamental rights are crimes, and those who are responsible for them must answer for their acts. With courage and determination, Aboubakr Jamaï has defended the causes that are noble in my view. Against winds and tides he has expressed a concept of power and of the State that in my view is very lucid and very just.

Let us be clear that Boubker Jamaï is not going into exile for any single scandal. The “case” against Le Journal has been building for a long time. Le Journal is, quite simply, the most credible news source in Morocco. It and its rival Tel Quel are effectively the only independent news sources in Morocco. Simply by practicing the professional standards of journalism we take for granted in the West, Le Journal has made powerful enemies such as Fouad Ali El Himma, the King’s right-hand man. Using the shadow tactics of power traditionally used in Morocco, various maneuverings were set in motion to trap Le Journal. The particular trap Boubker Jamaï got caught in doesn’t really matter, especially since the facts of the case were specious at best.

For the record, Le Journal criticized a Belgian security consultant for writing a supposedly independent report on the Western Sahara that parroted the Moroccan government position. This led to a libel case and the infamous three million dirham fine, for saying things that had already appeared in European papers with no penalty. The offending article was published a year ago, the case was decided months ago, and the State chose the right moment to collect. According to the satirical but serious online journal Bakchich, the bailiffs “came with their hands out” just after Le Journal reported on some secret maneuvers of El Himma, the second or third most powerful man in Morocco.

    It’s true that banana justice is always “effective” when it’s a matter of muzzling the press. Le Journal Hébdomadaire won’t be the one to contradict that. Condemned this year [2006] to pay three million dirhams to a buffoon named Claude Moniquet after a surreal trial, the sentence was not carried out. Until this week [December 22]. In effect, the bailiffs came with their hands out after Le Journal described, among other things, the secret gatherings that Fouad Ali El Himma, author of the fake parliamentary majority, organized with political party leaders to put together yet one more cabal against the PJD. Once again, we see a clear example of collusion between the political elite and the judiciary. The fact that the lawyer for the buffoon Moniquet found no better way to defend his Belgian client than to bray in the middle of the courtroom that Le Journal is an anti-patriotic publication proves it.

My understanding is that some important people have offered to pay Jamaï’s fine, but that he has refused as a matter of principle, for the same reason that governments don’t negotiate with kidnappers. What remains, then, is to pressure the Moroccan State to reverse itself, particularly in advance of this year’s elections which will hopefully receive close international scrutiny. This is not the time for a supposedly modernizing state to be playing games with freedom. Responsible journalists and lovers of liberty should rise to the defense of Boubker Jamaï, who is a model of journalistic integrity in Morocco. At the same time, we must remember that it is not just the man we are defending, but the principles he has lived by throughout his career.

Will Jamaï return to Morocco one day, vindicated? Jamaï himself says, “The social forces that allowed the emergence of a magazine like Le Journal will remain, though men come and go.” Larbi is pessimistic, saying Jamaï “has his life ahead of him” and “will have to wait for the verdict of history.” AbMoul disagrees, saying, “The power elite will prove unable to win a war…to maintain Moroccans under the yoke of ignorance…. Jamaï will go, to return stronger. His place is in Morocco.”

Jamaï’s place is indeed in Morocco, because he is a living example of the spirit that is rejuvenating the country. But more to the point, Morocco’s place is among free nations, where the press plays its role of watchdog for the citizens, and acts as intermediary between the people and those who serve them. It is high time for the people of Morocco to claim their destiny, to rally and extend the cause of freedom.

I am told that a website will be online shortly in solidarity with Aboubakr Jamaï. Meanwhile, here are some links for those who want to know more.

  • An October 16, 2006 article on Jamaï from The New Yorker (summary only, but registration is free).
  • Jamaï’s occasional blog in the Washington Post
  • A January 18, 2007 statement from Reporters Without Borders
  • An interview with Jamaï in the Arabic-language publication Elaph from January 17, 2007

Comments

Comment from Yahia
Time: January 22, 2007, 21:29

I think this is the case where we should really go about defending freedom of speech.
In Nichane’s case, which was a diversion in my opinion, opposed two sides which struggled about each one’s opinion.
For Aboubakr Jamaï it isn’t so.

Comment from Jill
Time: January 23, 2007, 06:31

Wow, again…excellent coverage.

I agree that this is very much a case to uphold freedom of speech.

Despite all of the sadness and anger surrounding this though, don’t you just have this feeling that Jamai’s going to get to the U.S. (that’s the rumor of his destination, anyway, given his experience there and fluency in English) and end up making tons more money than he ever could here AND opening the press there to issues here? Wishful thinking, perhaps, and it certainly doesn’t absolve Morocco.

I love Le Journal as well (I learned French from it, for goodness’ sake!) and I hope it doesn’t take a downward turn.

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