Lesson from Casablanca

In Morocco, I worked for a press that had new freedoms — and old fears

by Mary Fowles 

Originally Published in Maclean's Magazine

IT WAS MY FIRST day of work at Le Journal Hebdomadaire, an independent French-language weekly magazine published in Casablanca. I’d been in the bustling city just a few days, so I decided to walk to the office. Elderly veiled women, their palms stretched toward me with a blessing, called out in Arabic. 

I passed the high earthen walls of the medina — the ancient, original city in the centre of a now sprawling urban jungle — and breathed deeply of the rich spices and herbs being sold inside. Finally, I reached a part of town where the buildings, stained from decades of diesel fumes, are as uninteresting as any administrative office block.

I was nervous. I was about to start a six-month-long internship made possible by a fellowship from Ottawa’s International Development Research Centre. How, I wondered, could a novice Canadian journalist contribute to one of the most daring print media in the Arab World?

Le Journal Hebdomadaire (the weekly paper), which opened in 1999, is not aligned with any political party or ideology. It challenges Morocco’s limits on free speech through tough investigative reporting of government corruption and taboo political topics. 

The publisher and managing editor have been fined numerous times, convicted of defamation and sentenced to several months in prison (pending an appeal). Advertisers have boycotted the weekly, and journalists are often paid late. In 2003, the publisher was honoured with an international Press Freedom Award for his “commitment to independent news coverage amid repeated government interference.”

All this in a nation in the throes of transition. Morocco’s 41-year-old king, Mohammed VI, who serves as political leader, Commander of the Faithful, and president of Rabat’s surf club, has promised democratic reforms. One result: in May 2002, the press code was liberalized — if it can be described as such. Journalists can still be sentenced to up to five years of imprisonment for offences such as defaming the monarchy or Islam. The code is open to broad interpretation, as Ali Lmrabet, the former editor-in-chief of the weekly Demain, found out when he published comments by an opponent of the monarchy and a satirical cartoon commenting on the parliament-approved budget for the royal household. In 2003, Lmrabet was found guilty of “insulting the person of the King,” among other things, and sentenced to three years in prison, fined 20,000 dirham (about C$3,000) and had his paper banned. Not surprisingly, such incidents create an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty, often causing journalists to censor themselves.

When I arrived at the office, I climbed the stairs to the first floor where, down a dark corridor, I found an unmarked wooden door and rang a security doorbell. The managing editor, a cigarette dangling from his lips, greeted me. After showing me to my desk, he gave me a copy of that week’s issue, the headline “Fachos Islamistes?” (Are Islamists fascists?) glaring in orange block letters from the cover.

“Has Le Journal ever been threatened by Islamists?” I asked, surprising myself with my first question for my new boss. “Not really,” he replied, “we have more worries from the kingdom. But the adventure continues.”

As the months passed, my goal of fearlessly contributing to the advancement of press freedom was overtaken by the challenges of reporting in a foreign country. 

Still, I managed to write articles about Casablanca’s female taxi drivers, a Moroccan playwright and an international media conference. I interviewed an old storyteller in Marrakesh, and clandestine immigrants in the impoverished countryside. Nothing groundbreaking. I was not censored; I was not even criticized.

In the wider world, it was a volatile time. The child hostages in Beslan, Russia were massacred, President George W. Bush was re-elected, Yasser Arafat died and the Southeast Asian tsunami hit. Seeing those events through the eyes of my Muslim Arab colleagues helped me to understand how vast the differences are between Arab and Western perceptions of the world. In the case of the tsunami, for instance, Attajdid, a weekly newspaper that’s the voice of one of the Islamic opposition parties, said the disaster was divine retribution on countries that allow sexual tourism. The article sparked heated debate throughout the country and outrage from the independent press. An editorial by Le Journal‘s publisher described the piece as “profoundly worrying” and condemned what he called “an attitude of intolerance.”

As I learned from working at Le Journal, press freedom in Morocco is fought for, word by word, deadline after deadline, sometimes with severe consequences. I have great respect for those courageous Moroccan journalists who know that only through press freedom can the powerless be given a voice, and injustices and corruption be exposed.

See original post here: Lesson from Casablanca / Maclean's 

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