New York, January 18, 2007—The publisher of Morocco’s independent weekly Le Journal Hebdomadaire resigned today in a move designed to shield the magazine from the record damages he was ordered to pay last year in a controversial defamation suit.
Aboubakr Jamaï, publisher of the groundbreaking weekly, announced at a press conference in Casablanca that he was stepping down to prevent Moroccan authorities from seizing the magazine’s assets. Jamaï told CPJ he will remove himself from the masthead starting this week.
“This is a sad day for Morocco, which is losing one of its best and most courageous journalists,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “Aboubakr Jamaï, a leading force in independent journalism, has stood up to repeated government attempts to silence him.”
Jamaï’s announcement comes nine months after an appeals court upheld a February 2006 decision ordering Jamaï and former reporter Fahd al-Iraqi to pay 3 million dirhams (US$354,000) in damages to Claude Moniquet, head of the Brussels-based security think tank European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center. Moniquet claimed Le Journal Hebdomadaire defamed him and his institute when it published a six-page critique in December 2005 that questioned the independence of the center’s report on the disputed Western Sahara. The two journalists were also fined 100,000 dirhams (US$11,800) as part of the judgment, which observers criticized as politically motivated.
In recent weeks, court officials have visited Le Journal Hebdomadaire’s Casablanca office demanding payment of the damages and fines. Jamaï and al-Iraqi remain personally liable to pay the damages awarded to Moniquet. “I have no formal way of earning a wage in this country,” Jamaï told CPJ. “Any kind of revenue or property I acquire can be seized.”
Moroccan courts are widely seen as influenced by the government; the proceedings in this case fueled suspicions of a politically inspired judgment. Le Journal Hebdomadaire declined to defend itself at trial and on appeal after it was barred from introducing expert witnesses who would have testified that Moniquet’s report closely reflected government positions on the Western Sahara dispute. The state prosecutor went on record in support of Moniquet’s original demand of 5 million dirhams, although the prosecution had no obligation to make any recommendation. The trial court provided no explanation for how it reached the unprecedented damage award, the second record-breaking amount levied against Jamaï for work in his publication. Moroccan state-run media have eagerly covered the lawsuit, condemning the publication and highlighting the claims of the plaintiff.
A judgment in a similar 2002 case led Jamaï to conclude that he now needed to sever his relationship with the magazine in order to protect it. In that 2002 case, court officials moved aggressively to seize the magazine’s assets before Jamaï was able to pay the judgment.
Jamaï, a former CPJ International Press Freedom Award recipient, has seen both Le Journal Hebdomadaire and its sister publication, Assahifa al-Ousbouiya, repeatedly harassed by the government for their reporting on corruption, corporate impropriety, and taboo political topics. The papers have been criminally prosecuted, banned, and targeted financially through government advertising boycotts.
In February, just days before the Moniquet verdict, Moroccan authorities orchestrated protests against the magazine. The “demonstrators,” some of whom later acknowledged that they were recruited by the government, protested publication of an Agence France-Presse photograph showing a reader holding the edition of the Paris daily France Soir that reproduced Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Le Journal Hebdomadaire ran the photograph as part of a 10-page chronology of events that followed publication of the controversial drawings in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.