Morocco: Watch-out for the hawks



 
Nadia Salah, editorial director at Morocco's Eco-Medias group, condemns the hawks who threaten the freedom of the press, and argues that free newspapers are bound to a short life.
 
By APN
 
Morocco, Marrakech, Contortionist at Jamea Alfana © S.M. / arabimages.com
Marrakech, Morocco. A contortionist displays his talents on Jamea Alfana. © S.M. / arabimages.com

With 230 employees, Eco-Medias is one of Morocco's most dynamic press groups. L'Economiste, its flagship publication, is the country's leading business daily. Assabah, an Arabic-language generalist paper created in 2000, has spiraled to the top of Moroccan publications with a daily circulation of 93,313. The group's latest initiative? The launch of Radio Atlantique in December 2006 which broadcasts both in French and Arabic.

What does your position as the group's editorial director entail?

Nadia Salah: I am legally liable for the content of all three outlets, which is rather dangerous considering that law provides for prison sentences. My role is to enable certain synergies. For example, since L'Economiste is the oldest and largest newsroom with 32 journalists, no one can find out about any business news before it does. For this sector, it therefore acts as a news agency. On the other hand, when it comes to general news, no one can beat Assabah.

I spend my days in editorial conferences. My job was created to establish a bridge between the three outlets and ensure that the information found is shared even though they have different ways of reporting it, since the two newspapers and the radio don't resemble each other. The daily in French is elitist. The Arabic-language paper is very mass market and it is by far number one in terms of sales.

You mentioned the perils of a press code forseeing prison sentences. The new legislation has not abolished them.


By maintaining prison sentences for defamation cases, the reform doesn't deliver the promises made by the government or our requests. Abolishing prison sentences is our most fervent claim. Abdelmounaim Dilami, CEO of the Eco-Medias group as well as president of the Fédération Marocaine des Editeurs de Journaux (FMEJ - Moroccan Federation of Newspaper Editors) has protested, and we have decided to wage war against this draft. At present, the adoption process has been suspended, and the task will be up to the next government after the elections in September.

Do you have reservations about other provisions in this code?

The new legislation has also maintained the burden on investigative journalism of providing written proof of what's being said. In other words, a journalist covering a corruption scandal has to show receipts for the money involved in the corruption.

Another point: access to information remains problematic. Civil servants should be forced to give information, but they hide behind their right to withhold.

Hidden funding of newspapers is also an anti-liberal practice which should be eradicated. Morocco is a monarchy where courtiers are fighting around the palace. They have the power to get backing for newspapers and have enabled the launch of papers with hidden financing that upset the market. This procedure helps keep alive newspapers that should not exist.

Do you feel that the government is currently carrying out an offensive against the press? Some are even talking of the 'Benalisation' of Morocco.

No, I don't perceive such an offensive, and definitely not a Benalisation. However, I notice the presence of opposing currents in the government and in the palace. For example, the Justice Minister, Mr. Bouzouba, a hawk, is always on the front line to ban newspapers. Another hawk is the Secretary General of the government, Mr. Rabiah, who has the rank of minister and who has proven to be a hawk among hawkss. He wanted a law that would forbid opinion polls in Morocco!

The Communications Minister, Benabdallah, is in the dove camp, but he doesn't have much weight. The Prime Minister, Driss Jettou, is mostly a dove, but from time to time he gives the hawks a bone to chew. And then there's this paradox: it's friends of the palace who approached private investors (including shareholders in L'Economiste, so we know what we're talking about!) for financing TelQuel, and yet they're the ones who complain that TelQuel is slipping away from them....

What do you think about the emergence of free newspapers in Morocco? Does your group plan to launch one?

Many free newspapers were launched recently, but they go bankrupt within three months. The problem isn't the quality. Our group was approached by a free publication that wanted to be bought by us, but as long as there's no subway in Morocco, we won't invest in this niche. Currently, it doesn't appear to me that they have impacted the paid-for press' distribution. 

Has the recent deregulation of broadcasting impacted newspaper circulation?

Not yet. In our group, opinions diverge. Our president thinks there's a risk of competition and asks us to be cautious when we use articles from L'Economiste or Assabah. He warns us not to ruin our scoops. I tend to think that radio is actually a good introduction to information. The future will tell who is right.

L'Economiste was one of the first newspapers to have a website. Does it earn advertising income?

L'Economiste website has existed since 1993, it was the second newspaper in the world following The Irish Times to become established on the Web. We haven't found the economic model to support our site on the Internet. Advertisers aren't interested, and we haven't had any ads on our website during its fourteen years of existence. In Morocco, online advertising still hasn't taken off. My feeling is that a conservative vision persists both within advertisers and ad agencies. The age of the decision-makers is a large part of the reason.

After the radio station's launch, does the group have other projects in mind?

We're going to create a school of journalism. Morocco has experienced unprecedented economic growth for the last 30 years and human resources don't always follow. We have contacted the journalism school of Paris to apply the same concept in Casablanca. We'd like to expand it to include all communications fields. The school should be open for the 2008-2009 school year.

This article was first published on August 22, 2007 on the Arab Press Network (APN), a web portal by the World Association of Newspapers (WAN). Visit APN at http://www.arabpressnetwork.org.