Newsletter No 28 03 May 2006
 
Press Freedom:
Morocco: Editorial Boldness Costs Advertising Revenues

As one of the best selling weeklies in Morocco, Le Journal Hebdomadaire enjoys a great degree of popularity among readers. This has not, however, attracted advertising to the newspaper. The publication believes this lukewarm interest from advertisers is directly linked to its editorial line. Today, the record damages imposed to the newspaper in a defamation case could force it close.

“We are one of the most read weeklies in Morocco,” Director General Ali Amar says. “However, between the close of 2000 and the start of 2001 we lost about 80 per cent of our advertising revenues.”

In 2000, editions of the weekly -- simply called Le Journal at the time— were banned after the newspaper featured an interview with Mohammed Abdelaziz, leader of the pro-Western Sahara’s independence movement Polisario Front. Later the same year, the paper was again banned after reprinting a letter alleging that a former government official had been involved in a plot to kill King Hassan II. The weekly reopened under its actual name a few months later.

By that time, the weekly had reached its highest circulation –36,000 says Amar. Despite this, lack of advertising revenues obligated the publication to cut staff, and reduce the print run to 25,000 copies to cut costs. Today, Le Journal Hebdomadaire circulates 18,000 copies, Amar says.

“Some clients admitted to us that they had received pressure from the authorities to stop advertising in our newspaper,” says Amar. “It is noteworthy that the most circulated independent publications take in less advertising revenues.”

Government bodies, large companies linked to the royal palace and multinationals, which think their interest in Morocco depends on their relationship with authorities, boycott the independent press, Amar says. “Financially, we have suffered a lot from this pressure. The survival of our press group is now threatened despite our editorial success.”

The financial situation of Le Journal Hebdomadaire took a sharp turn for the worse this spring. On 18 April, the publication was sentenced to pay the highest damages ever imposed in a libel case in the country; 3 million dirhams (USD 320,000).

The sentence came after the weekly criticized a report on Western Sahara issued by the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center (ESISC), a Belgium-based think-tank. Le Journal Hebdo said it was too close to the Moroccan official position and raised questions about the possibility of Moroccan authorities having guided the report.

According to international press freedom organizations, “the court proceedings throughout the lawsuit have been unfair to Le Journal Hebdomadaire, fuelling suspicion that the judgments are politically motivated.”

As a result of the court case, the weekly is fighting a new battle for survival as the huge damages awarded could lead to its financial ruin. It will only be able to continue if the plaintiff does not enforce the judgment. The ESISC has already reportedly said they will do it.

For the moment, the only hope for Le Journal Hebdomadaire is that the solidarity its case has raised in Morocco and abroad helps them obtaining the money to pay the damages.

Nevertheless, the principal shareholder of Tri Media, the group publishing Le Journal Hebdomadaire as well as its sister publication in Arabic Assahifa, is reportedly seeking to sell it.

On 3 May, if the weekly is still published – “printers are worried that we won’t be able to pay them”, says Amar-- Le Journal Hebdomadaire intends to mark the World Press Freedom Day:

“Every year we give a voice to journalists associations, independent Moroccan journalists and international press freedom organizations, to whom we offer advertising space to raise awareness of public opinion,” Amar says.

Le Journal Hebdomadaire is considered Morocco’s first truly independent newspaper. In 2003, the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists awarded the publication its International Press Freedom Prize for “staking out new terrain in Moroccan journalism through tough investigative reporting on government corruption, corporate impropriety and taboo political topics.”