Controversial Moroccan news magazine Nichane closes
CASABLANCA // One afternoon this month in Casablanca, Ahmed Benchemsi, the publisher of the leading Arabic weekly news magazine Nichane, gathered his staff around a table and informed them they were all out of a job.
"We had an extremely emotional and painful meeting," said Mr Benchemsi. "Then I gave them their cheques."
After years of hammering on taboos and looking critically at government policies, Nichane was driven into bankruptcy by a lack of revenue that Mr Benchemsi blames on a boycott by advertisers.
The Paris-based media rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders has called Nichane's demise a sign that the space for independent journalism in Morocco is shrinking. Mr Benchemsi says it also demonstrates the vulnerability of Arabic-language titles in a media industry dominated by French.
When the reporter Mohammed el Khadiri, 24, heard the news, a pang of regret shot through him. He said pocketing his final pay, he went to a cafe near the office to commiserate with colleagues.
"I felt that there was an intellectual link between me and the magazine," he said. "And there was a special bond among all of us working there."
Mr Benchemsi launched Nichane in 2006 as an Arabic-language sister publication to TelQuel, a French-language weekly he founded in 2001.
Both magazines have promoted secular values and investigated into sensitive issues such as religion, sex and Morocco's monarchy. More than once, that has brought trouble with authorities.
Nichane was just three months old when the government banned it for two months in 2007 over an article on traditional jokes about Islam. A journalist and the magazine's then-editor were hit with fines and suspended prison sentences.
That year Mr el Khadiri, the son of a fishing boat pilot from the port city of Safi, began writing for Nichane while studying journalism in Rabat, the capital.
"Other publications have supported modernity, but Nichane was closest to my way of thinking," he said.
The magazine also pioneered the use in print of Morocco's Arabic dialect, known as Darija, a mish-mash that includes words of Tamazight, French and Spanish origin.
That helped make the magazine Morocco's best-selling Arabic weekly title, according to the country's independent media sales tracking agency.
"I see the readers of Nichane as well-informed and intelligent," said Abdelhamid Lazrak, the president of the Institut des Hautes Études Économiques et Sociales, a private business school in Casablanca that advertised this year in Nichane's pages.
"I'm not acting as a kind of sponsor for the magazine," he said. "But it was simply one of the most widely read titles in Morocco."
Most advertisers, however, remained aloof, according to Mr Benchemsi.
"Ad agencies consider that the elite is francophone and advertise more widely in the francophone press," he said. "A magazine in Arabic can't survive a boycott."
Nichane's troubles escalated last year when authorities seized copies containing an opinion poll on King Mohamed VI's first decade in power. The poll showed a 91 per cent approval rating. The copies were seized despite the high approval rating because any scrutiny of the king is considered illegal.
Authorities regularly take action against journalists accused of libel or breaching restrictions on criticising Islam, the monarchy and Morocco's rule in Western Sahara, a trend that accelerated last year, according to a statement this month by Reporters Without Borders.
The government has called legal actions against media in recent years a legitimate response to allegedly inaccurate or defamatory reporting.
According to Mr Benchemsi, Nichane succumbed to an alleged advertising boycott initiated in 2006 by Morocco's largest corporation, the ONA/SNI group, owned by the royal family, with other companies close to Morocco's leaders joining in following a brief pause in 2008.
Nawfal Laarabi, a spokesman for ONA/SNI, said by phone that he could not comment on Mr Benchemsi's claim. The corporation did not respond to a request for an interview.
For Mr el Khadiri, the end of Nichane is also a story of dashed hopes and the challenge of unemployment.
Last Friday, he dropped by the magazine's office to collect some books for a former colleague. The office was dark and barren except for oversized covers of Nichane displayed on the walls.
"I'm confident I can find more work," Mr el Khadiri said. "It's just that it won't be the same."
Updated: October 16, 2010 04:00 AM