News / Middle East

Moroccan Muckraker Fights Defamation Charge in Press Freedom Test

This June 22, 2012 edition of Alaan Magazine shows Moroccan Minister of Industry, Trade and New Technologies Abdelkader Amara, who is suing magazine editor Youssef Jajili for his article on the official's alleged misuse of taxpayer funds.
This June 22, 2012 edition of Alaan Magazine shows Moroccan Minister of Industry, Trade and New Technologies Abdelkader Amara, who is suing magazine editor Youssef Jajili for his article on the official's alleged misuse of taxpayer funds.
Kate WoodsomeMohamed Elshinnawi

What happens when a trade minister, entrusted with public funds, spends them on an extravagant hotel room service bill? If you guessed, "Journalist who publicizes the bill ends up facing prison time," you'd be right. At least in Morocco.

That's the situation Moroccan investigative journalist Youssef Jajili is in. The founder and editor of Alaan Magazine printed a copy of Abdelkader Amara’s hotel bill from an official visit he made to Burkina Faso. The bill shows the minister spent nearly US$1,000 in taxpayer funds on a room service meal that, according to Jajili's source, included two bottles of champagne for the Muslim official.

Amara says Jajili made up the story and is suing him for criminal defamation in a case media rights groups say exemplifies the government’s failure to make promised political reforms and its campaign to silence independent journalists.

Reconciliation?

A judge in a Casablanca suburb on Monday postponed the trial for a month, giving the two parties time for “reconciliation.”

Jajili says if reconciliation requires an apology on his part, it’s not going to happen - even if he has to go to prison.

“Why [would] I write an excuse? I didn’t do any fault. I didn’t do any bad thing. I just did my job as a journalist,” he said in a telephone interview from Casablanca.

“I think it was a good story for Moroccan people to know the reality of this minister,” he said of the June article. “In Morocco, drink [alcohol] is illegal … At the same time, he [buys] two bottles of champagne with the money of the Moroccan people.”

Journalist Youssef Jajili, as he appears on his Twitter profile @YoussefJajili.Journalist Youssef Jajili, as he appears on his Twitter profile @YoussefJajili.
x
Journalist Youssef Jajili, as he appears on his Twitter profile @YoussefJajili.
Journalist Youssef Jajili, as he appears on his Twitter profile @YoussefJajili.

Twenty-nine year-old Jajili grew up poor and established his weekly magazine last April to expose what he considers government hypocrisy that is keeping Moroccans impoverished.

A rare breed

He is one of few investigative reporters in a country where advertising boycotts, criminal defamation suits, prison terms, fines and even physical assault are putting independent journalists out of business.

“There are fewer and fewer, and even those who were really strong, independent media are not as strong as before. They’re a bit tired of being all the time harassed and facing difficulties,” said Soazig Dollet, in charge of the Maghreb region for Reporters Without Borders.

The Paris-based group ranked Morocco 136 out of 179 countries on its 2013 Press Freedom Index that came out Wednesday.

Dollet said in the weeks leading up to the index’s release, Moroccan authorities sent her “tons and tons of documents” about how much press freedom has improved.

“I know the Moroccan authorities are really concerned about the image,” she said, adding that Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane was careful to avoid a question about the defamation case during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland last week.

“The prime minister said he was not aware, which is not possible,” she said.

Dodging a request from the head of Human Rights Watch to stop criminalizing defamation, Benkirane instead pointed to the progress made.

“Only one year after the elections, which were held on the 29 of November [2011], if there was only one trial ... for someone who engaged in defamation, then I think that that shows that there have been no violations of the law in Morocco when it comes to the media compared to how things were a few years ago in Morocco and other countries,” Benkirane said.


Scroll to 44:20 to watch the Moroccan leader discuss defamation.

A muted Arab Spring

Morocco has not suffered the deadly unrest that overturned governments in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, but it has experienced its own kind of Arab Spring in the form of the February 20 Youth Movement.

Frustrated Moroccans took to the streets two years ago, demanding democracy, a constitutional monarchy and an end to corruption and press censorship.
Anti-government protesters shout during a rally organized by the Moroccan Arab Spring movement in Casablanca, Nov 20, 2011.Anti-government protesters shout during a rally organized by the Moroccan Arab Spring movement in Casablanca, Nov 20, 2011.
x
Anti-government protesters shout during a rally organized by the Moroccan Arab Spring movement in Casablanca, Nov 20, 2011.
Anti-government protesters shout during a rally organized by the Moroccan Arab Spring movement in Casablanca, Nov 20, 2011.

Anxious to avoid the fate of his neighbors, Moroccan King Mohammed VI promised sweeping constitutional reforms that would curb his powers and called an early parliamentary election that ushered in the country’s first Islamic government lead by the Justice and Development Party.

It was a smart move, according to Moshen Shawarby, a corruption and governance consultant who worked with both Moroccan authorities and the United Nations from 2009 to 2012.

“It’s a good PR party,” he said of the JDP’s public relations savvy. “They approached the people by making a lot of promises. They said they would offer social welfare, insurance policies, help for the poor. The people were happy at first. There was a lot of positive media.”

But the honeymoon may be ending.

New government, old problems

“Now the people are experiencing a problem of rising expectations. It’s really a matter of time before it’s realized they haven’t cashed in on any of the promises,” Shawarby said.

He said the new government has inherited the problems of the old, specifically public funds being used for private gain.

So when journalists like Youssef Jajili start asking questions, it makes the new government nervous that other journalists will start digging into even weightier issues, according to Shawarby.

He said it would be in the government's interest to drop the charges because if Jajili is "punished or jailed, it'll be serious negative publicity for the Islamic party."

Signing on to democracy

Jajili’s international supporters are hoping the Moroccan king will make the same calculation. Amber Lyon, a U.S.-based investigative journalist who was banned from Bahrain for reporting on the protests there, has started a petition to “Save Youssef.”

“The king has made reforms and he has been promoting Morocco as a democracy internationally,” she said. “And the greatest barometer for the health of democracy is freedom of press.”

Although Jajili faces up to a year in prison if convicted, he is still working and encouraging other reporters to stay brave. It’s a bit hard, he says, because government officials are boycotting the magazine’s requests for interviews.

Trade Minister Amara has not responded to our own requests for an interview. 


He has accused Jajili in the Moroccan press of fabricating the story. On his Facebook page, Amara says he plans to prosecute “any person directly or indirectly involved in this action, which attacks my honor and dignity, and the honor of my position, my family and my party.”

Jajili returns to court on February 25. While he waits, the journalist says he has a bad feeling.

“It’s a bad feeling because I don’t know the end of this story."

You May Like

Video One Year After Thai Coup, No End in Sight for Military Rule

Since carrying out the May 22, 2014 coup, the general has retired from the military but is still firmly in charge More

Goodbye, New York

This is what the fastest-growing big cities in America have in common More

Job-Seeking Bangladeshis Risk Lives to Find Work

The number of Bangladeshi migrants on smugglers’ boats bound for Southeast Asian countries has soared in the past two years More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs