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|the TelQuel Group issued the following press statement in Casablanca, Morocco:
Morocco’s top Arabic-language weekly Nichane was closed today after a board meeting of its shareholders. The magazine’s large circulation and high editorial quality should have made it a prime advertising outlet. Yet Nichane has suffered a persistent advertising boycott campaign initiated by the royally-owned ONA/SNI group, the largest corporation in Morocco, and eventually followed by major companies linked to the regime. This intensive boycott has done irreparable financial harm. The TelQuel Group, Nichane’s major shareholder, has lost more than $1 million (US) – an enormous sum by Moroccan press standards – invested in the magazine. This financial bleeding had to be stopped.
The closure of Nichane raises troubling questions about Morocco’s commitment to press freedom. The thousands upon thousands of Moroccan readers who made Nichane a best-seller have now been deprived of a unique source of independent reporting. The magazine, founded in 2006 as a modernist and secular media outlet published in local Moroccan Arabic, has been praised in Morocco and abroad for its daring taboo-tackling cover stories. These include: “The King’s cult of personality”, “Sex and homosexuality in Islamic culture”, “Morocco, #1 marijuana producer in the world”, “Inside Moroccan secret services”, “How Moroccans joke about Islam, sex and the monarchy.”, and more.
Within only two years of its launch, Nichane – whose journalists received numerous international awards – became the best-selling Arabic weekly in Morocco, and remained so. This status was formally documented on www.ojd.ma, the website of OJD, the independent agency monitoring newspapers’ sales in Morocco.
Yet because of its often critical positions towards the regime, Nichane – along with TelQuel, its French-language sister publication – was from its inception targeted by a large advertising boycott campaign. That campaign intensified after September 2009 when the government censored publication of an opinion poll on King Mohammed VI (another first, in Morocco and the entire Arab World) published by Nichane, TelQuel and the French daily Le Monde.
Many of Morocco’s major companies are owned by the royal family, by the government, or by moguls closely connected to the regime. Because of political pressure and a boycott campaign launched by royal ONA/SNI group, many of these companies in various economic sectors (e.g., banking, telecommunications, real estate, air transportation) over time began to remove TelQuel Group publications from their advertising purchases. Even public awareness advertisements (e.g., those marking “Earth Day” celebrations) were banned from the TelQuel Group publications because of political pressure. From September 2008, a time when the boycott of Nichane was briefly suspended, to September 2010, the climax of the campaign, Nichane lost 77% of its advertising income. Still, while Nichane has succumbed, TelQuel,
which is targeted as well by the boycott campaign, continues to resist – drawing on the larger and more diverse francophone advertising market, which includes international corporations.
During its four years of existence, Nichane repeatedly faced censorship and persecution. The publication was banned from the newsstands for three months (causing massive financial losses); its former editor and one of its journalists were each condemned to a three-year suspended prison sentence; three of its issues were seized and two of them illegally burned by the police (who destroyed 100,000 copies causing huge financial losses); and its publisher was sued by the government for allegedly “lacking due respect to the King” (the trial remains on hold). Yet despite all of these legal challenges, it was ultimately financial crippling via a regime-orchestrated advertising boycott that forced Nichane to bankruptcy.
Nichane’s asphyxiation is the latest consequence of the dangerously deteriorating press freedoms in Morocco. Since 2009, attacks on free press have escalated, as denounced by many international watchdogs, including the American Center for Protection of Journalists. Moroccan media outlets were illegally closed; others had to sell their furniture to pay astoundingly high judicial fines. Many journalists have been harassed by the police and the judiciary, some were forced to exile. One journalist even spent seven months in prison during 2010.
Nichane was born out of a growing period of press freedom during the last decade. In this regard, the Kingdom of Morocco was a rare exception within the Arab world – as attested by the cover stories Nichane and TelQuel have succeeded in publishing. This era, however, appears to be drawing to a close. The few truly independent newspapers that remain suffer increasingly severe political and economic pressure to “soften” their editorial line. Morocco seems determined to pursue the same path as Tunisia, where the only tolerated newspapers are those that serve the regime’s interests.
While Nichane is closing today, one must pay tribute to those who built its outstanding success: its readers, above all, who never stopped to support and encourage Nichane’s unique brand of creativity and professionalism, and of course its talented journalists, photographers, illustrators, designers, and administrators. One must pay tribute as well to Nichane’s sales staff, whose members worked hard, for years, under difficult circumstances to secure advertising. Lastly, one must praise the wisdom of those rare business managers who kept on advertising in this best-selling media outlet, putting economic rationality ahead of political considerations. Thanks to the commitment and the passion of its talented staff, Nichane was a wonderful experience, one which will leave a vivid mark in the history of Moroccan free press.