28.04.2011 | AIDA ALAMI | The New York Times
CASABLANCA — After the Moroccan journalist Ali Lmrabet wrote about the king’s real estate holdings in 2001, he was tried in court on defamation charges and the article cost him his career: His satirical magazine, Demain, a symbol of the independent press, was shut down.
In 2003, he spent eight months in prison for “offending the monarchy,” and in 2005 he was barred from practicing journalism for 10 years for “threatening territorial integrity” and Demain was closed.
Now, the Internet has allowed him to make a comeback as the editor of the news site Demain Online.
In his first editorial on the site, on March 28, Mr. Lmrabet wrote, “Eight years after being banned by a ‘judicial’ decision, which was actually a real denial of justice in order to silence the independent press, the weekly Demain is reborn from the ashes in the form of an electronic newspaper.”
Over the past two years, the Moroccan regime’s already draconian crackdown on the independent press has turned even harsher: prison sentences, censorship, huge fines and advertising boycotts.
“There has been a significant deterioration of the press since August 2009,” said Soazig Dollet, in charge of the Maghreb region at Reporters Without Borders in Paris. “A harsh crackdown began that summer after the government censored TelQuel, a popular French-language magazine, for publishing a poll favorable to the king.” It might have been favorable, but the government said “the monarchy cannot be judged,” Mrs. Dollet said.
Two major publications were driven into financial failure last year by an advertising boycott: Le Journal Hebdomadaire, an internationally recognized investigative magazine, and Nichane, the Arabic version of TelQuel.
But over the past four months, reporters singled out by the government have been fighting to reverse this trend and carve out freedoms, this time online. After the Arab Spring reached Morocco this year, the Feb. 20 Youth Movement emerged, organizing peaceful demonstrations and asking for radical constitutional reforms. Among their demands: press freedom.
“This is the ideal moment to create a news brand,” said Aboubakr Jamai, former editor of Le Journal Hebdomadaire.
After that magazine closed last year, he said he would stop practicing journalism in Morocco permanently. But a few days after the first protests in February, he started a French and Arabic news site, Lakome.com. The site is run by a few journalists reporting daily on the political events in the country — exposing police brutality through videos filmed with mobile phones and giving a voice to controversial political figures like Nadia Yassine, a member of the banned Islamist political party Justice and Charity.
Lakome.com is reportedly the fourth most visited site in Morocco and claims up to 60,000 visitors a day. But like the other Web sites, it suffers from a lack of a revenue stream. Everyone running these sites hopes advertisers will eventually start paying them.
With no revenue stream, it is impossible for the sites to hire more reporters to supplement those working voluntarily. A few contributors send in pieces or videos, but the challenges remain great.
“We suffer a lot from the lack of reporters,” said Omar Radi, 25, a reporter atLakome.com. “It is impossible for us for now to pursue real investigations or develop the news coverage much.”
Still, readers are appreciative. Abdullah Abaakil, who is 41 and lives in Casablanca, said he was excited by the new opportunities to get fresh perspectives and, in particular, by the return of Mr. Jamai.
“I appreciate the rigor and quality of his analysis that characterized Le Journal,” he said. “It’s a great thing for us readers, but also for the country that journalists of this caliber are back and can enrich the public debate.”
So far, the regime has not made any move to shut down these sites. On March 9, KingMohammed VI announced constitutional reforms. Recently, the communications minister, Khalid Naciri, said that “it is clear that the media cannot remain indifferent to the Feb. 20 Movement.”
Reporters Without Borders warns that the journalists should beware: Last year, many bloggers were arrested, an indication that the authorities are closely monitoring the Web.
“Several measures can be taken by the authorities just like those we saw in Egypt and Bahrain, with the Internet blackout, or the use of indirect threats,” Mrs. Dollet said. “Web reporters should remain vigilant.”