Thursday, December 23, 2010
Independent Moroccan weekly folds under pressure of fines and boycott.

After the Moroccan weekly Le Journal Hebdomadaire, as of 1 October, Nichane, the most widely read Arab weekly of Morocco, was also forced to close its doors. After a flood of government fines and an advertising boycott, the popular weekly can no longer be published on a profitable basis. ‘The closure of Nichane raises unsettling questions about Morocco’s commitment to press freedom,’ states the TelQuel Group, Nichane’s parent company, in a press release.

From the time of its founding in 2006, Nichane was already the victim of an advertising boycott by the Omnium North Africa Group, a holding that is run by the royal family and that dominates a large share of the Moroccan economy. Nichane managed to arouse the dissatisfaction of the royal family by publishing articles like ‘Sex and Homosexuality in Islamic Culture’ and ‘How Moroccans Joke about Islam, Sex and the Monarchy’. Ahmed Benchemsi, the publisher of Nichane and a respected journalist who has published in, among others, Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times, was already briefly imprisoned in 2007 after the publication of an editorial on the leadership of King Mohammed VI. Besides Islam’s status as state religion and the Western Sahara, the royal family is the third absolute taboo for the Moroccan press.

Nichane was born in a period of growing press freedom at the start of this decade. In this respect, Morocco for a long time formed an exception within the Arab world. However, this period of relative freedom currently seems to have drawn to a close. The few truly independent newspapers that are still left are increasingly confronted with strong political and economic pressure aimed at getting them to soften their critical stance. This results in growing self-censorship by journalists and populism in the newspapers.

‘As a result, Morocco appears to be heading in the direction of Tunisia,’ says Steven Assies, Free Press Unlimited Programme Coordinator for Morocco. ‘There, only newspapers that lend unconditional support to the regime are tolerated. If this process continues, this will ultimately mean the end of the already limited freedom of the press in Morocco.’