Aboubakr Jamai - Copyright Hasna Ankal
Interview

Aboubakr Jamai: “Morocco is a country worth following”

Journalist Aboubakr Jamaï has no hope for offline media in Morocco. In an interview he explains why he joined journalist Ali Anouzla and invested in the website Lakome which Anouzla started at the end of 2010. He also shares his views on the Moroccan media landscape and Moroccan politics.

After having published for a long time, Jamaï and Anouzla were forced to close down their publications after repression from the Moroccan government. Aboubakr Jamaï returned to journalism after large demonstrations for democracy took place in Morocco in the beginning of 2011. It is not easy to be a journalist in Morocco. According to the pressfreedom index of Reporters Without Borders pressfreedom in this country has deteriorated. The imprisonment of journalist Rachid Nini caused damage to Morocco’s reputation as one of the most liberal countries in its region. Yet the new constitution promised greater freedoms for media as well as greater freedom of expression. But for Jamai the only freedom left is online.

Your pro-democracy view is important in your work. How do you see the role of online media like Lakome in the democratisation process in a country like Morocco?

I think what the electronic press is doing is great. There is one example where online media went to the city Taza when there were riots between demonstrators and police. These media talked to people, put them in front of a camera and placed their testimonies on a website and on Youtube. This has been extremeley helpful to the debate about what happened in Taza. I don’t think people would have been exposed to these realities if Lakome or the electronic media didn’t exist. Normally it should have been on national television with all the different perspectives on the events: from the police, politicians, citizens, unions. But that didn’t happen.

After your website spread the news about these riots, the government pointed its finger to online media as a cause for the tensions. It even threatened to impose sanctions on the owners of these media. Can these kinds of sanctions become a threat for the electronic press?

The problem the government has with electronic media is that it is very difficult to gain control of them, because, legally speaking, they have nothing registered in Morocco. The website Demainonline is based in Spain, Lakome is also in Europe and our server is in Canada.

But the website can be blocked for netizens in Morocco.

Yes, but I believe that the cost of clamping down on the digital media would be high because the regime would have to sign. its crime, whereas with the offline media it was very hard to trace back the origin of the repression. If they block a website it is obviously direct censorship. We are lucky in the sense that this regime still needs to project an image of liberalism and openness, so we’re using this margin within which we can manoever right now. The main reason we at Lakome started investing in digital media was because the ability of the regime to go after us in the electoric medialandscape is much diminished compared to the traditional media where the regime has many ways of clamping down on the press.

One of these ways in which the government attacked the press in the case of your previous newspapers was through advertising boycotts. How can a state have so much influence on advertising?

First of all, the king is the top businessman in Morocco, so he himself is a big advertiser. If the king and the king’s stooges decide not to advertise with you, this becomes a message for the rest. So if  another company still advertises with you it will be interpreted as an antagonistic gesture “against the king”, and no one is willing to antagonise the biggest gorilla in the room. This is how business works. You cannot expect business people to jeopardise their whole business to suit your pro-democracy view. I’ve been through this with le Journal Hebdomadaire and Assahifa al-Ousbouiya. Some advertisers who acted as if they didn’t get the message from the regime got phone calls to stop working with us.

Are you able to work more freely with advertisers now?

Lakome’s inception was able to generate some amount of revenue through advertisement. This source has dried up recently and we know that the reason for this is pressure from the regime. The French version of the website didn’t last long because we were short on resources and we decided to put all our energies on the Arabic site, but hopefully we’ll come back with the French version in the coming months.

Do you have an idea how many people visit your website?

I don’t know the exact number, but I think recently it’s been around 100.000 unique viewers a day. Most of them are from Morocco, but we have a sizeable portion coming from Belgium, France and Canada.

Beside some pressure from the government, another obstacle to the dissemination of your content among Moroccans may be the low litteracy rate.

I think that the illiteracy issue is a bit overstated. I don’t think there is a single family unit that doesn’t include at least one educated person. In other words, when you look at the demonstrations of the February 20th Movement, each one of these guys on the street is probably a litterate person but in his family unit or in his neighboorhood he is probably the intellectual leader because of his education. I have in mind a guy named Kamal Al-Amari who died after a protest in Safi. He had a job in mining. But what some people failed to see is that he had a Bachelor in chemistry and was a university graduate. So you can easily imagine that this guy was actually the intellectual driving force in his family; he was not some kind of jobless illiterate guy chased by the police and beaten up.

Secondly when you look at the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, it was a tiny minority which conducted the revolution. When you look at the big picture in Egypt, the people in Tahrir square were nothing. But they’re the ones who affected change because history is moved by mobilised minorities, not by silent majorities. So if a minority of informed or mobilised people is the argument in favor of some kind of continued status quo in Morocco, I don’t think it’s a valid one.

Your news website is in favor of the February 20th Movement. One of your reporters, Najib Chaouki, is a member of this movement. Doesn’t it sometimes cause problems when you present yourself as an independent news medium that provides objectivity?

No, I don’t think there is a contradiction. There is a problem with the word objectivity. I have yet to see an objective journalist. But there is such thing as an honest journalist. Honesty, journalism is not twisting the facts to fit your narritive. In terms of journalistic techniques you have to stick to the facts when you present a report as a report. And even then the way you present the facts is, whether you like it or not, a kind of editorilisation. But even when you write an editorial, which by definition is an opinion, you shouldn’t change the facts to reinforce an opinion because then it’s not a matter of objectivity but a matter of honesty.

The February 20th Movement objectives match totally with Lakome’s editorial line because the very reason why Ali Anouzla’s publication closed down and why my offline publications were forced out of business is because we both had a very pro democracy editorial line. So we can only agree with the feb20 movement and what we call the Arab Spring in general.

This reminds me of a quote I read on the twitter account of  an Egyptian journalist who is also an activist: “In a dictatorship, independent journalism by default becomes a form of activism, and the spread of information is essentially an act of agitation.” So this is probably how you see journalism in Morocco?

Yes, it is militancy. Because journalism practiced freely and independently can only happen in a democratic society. When you don’t have a democratic society the mere fact of fighting for your right to speak your mind and to give a voice to those who are excluded from the public space can be called militancy, but it is still journalism. I have issues with this idea about how journalism should be, because this is the kind of argument used by authoritarian regimes: “these guys are not objective because they are in favor of the feb20 movement.” If it’s about objectivity how would you cover Hitler? You won’t give a voice to the Nazis the same way in which you give it to the Jews. It doesn’t make sense.

Since November 2011 the islamist PJD has entered Moroccan government for the first time. Is there any chance that this government can offer an improvement of the situation of journalists?

For offline journalism I think it is too late to change. I don’t see advertisers coming back freely to work with independent news media. The risk of losing advertisers has been digested by the existing newspapers and magazines. They know that if they stray away too far from the official discourse they might end up not being able to pay their salaries and their print, presses and paper.

While you were trying to inform Moroccans about what is happening related to the protests in their country, foreign media didn’t pay much attention to Morocco. You think they made a mistake?

I am not satisfied with the way Morocco has been covered but I have hard time blaming them. I can imagine that for a French journalist sitting in Paris or a Belgian in Brussels each time there was a meaningful event in Morocco there were even more catastrophic newsworthy stories happening elsewhere in the world. So you had Tunisia, then you had Egypt, then you had Yemen, now we have Syria non-stop. So it’s only normal that people are dedicating most of their resources to covering these stories. In Morocco you didn’t have the repressive methods that other Arab regimes have been using, so far. Which doesn’t mean that nothing is happening. Besides, the story did not end yet. We’re still in the middle of it.

How would you describe this story?

I think Morocco is a country worth following but Morocco is a sad story in the sense that I believe that this is a country which has and probably, I hope, still has the necessary ingredients to witness a peaceful democratisation proces, but this possibility is fading by the day because the regime is clearly unwilling to let go. When you look at the nepotism and the means it is using to enrich itself and its people, it speaks volumes about its unwillingness to advance the cause of democracy and political liberalism.

Morocco is facing a very dire economic situation. There are many more strikes than before. With the economic problems that Europe is going through, and that Morocco is also beginning to go through, you are in a situation where people are asking for more while the government is forced to give them less. Somehow, that situation will have to translate itself politically, but I don’t think it really has yet.

What do you think the February 20th Movement did for Moroccan politics?

Without the Feb20th Movement you wouldn’t have had the PJD in government. PJD is not in power but they are in the government. And the PJD is probably the last card of the regime, and it’s a poisoned one, because they have campaigned on the issue of fighting corruption, but there is no way they can fight corruption without confronting the monarchy so their equation is a losing one.

Wouldn’t confronting the monarchy mean entering a political crisis?

Either the monarchy will be confronted in a civilised way by politicians, by organisations, or it will be the street, and the street means “irhal”, which means “dégage”.

 

This article has previously been published on Stampmedia.be under the title Aboubakr Jamai: ‘De moeite waard om Marokko te volgen’  © 2012 – Hasna Ankal – StampMedia

 

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