Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Morocco’s Nichane Folds Under Royally-Backed Advertiser Boycott

When Nichane launched in September of 2006, it should have started a media revolution.  As Morocco’s first-ever magazine published in the local Arabic dialect, darija, Nichane–a sister magazine to long-running French weekly TelQuel–quickly captured the attention of a generation with its taboo-tackling stories and often humorous approach.

But just as the magazine was gaining traction, it was silenced, banned in December 2006 after its 10th issue, which focused on the role of humor in Moroccan society.  The offending article, written by young journalist and blogger Sana Al-Aji, shared some of Morocco’s most popular–and common–jokes dealing with class, society, and of course, religion.  It was the few jokes dealing with religion that were deemed particularly offensive, resulting in a campaign by Morocco’s religious right to take down the magazine, and ending with the authorities doing just that. The magazine was suspended for two months and Al-Aji, along with editor-in-chief Driss Ksikes, were fined and given three-year suspended sentences.

During the magazine’s absence, publisher Ahmed Reda Benchemsi, who also serves as the editor of TelQuel, ensured the magazine would not be forgotten by adding an insert into French-language weekly.  By March 15, 2007, Nichane rebounded, landing back on newsstands and for the next three years, the magazine was in many ways a success, a best-selling liberal magazine with a unique reach due to its use of darija.

At the same time, Nichane’s rocky beginnings were only a small indication of the troubles it would face down the road.  During its four years of existence, the publication repeatedly faced censure: its publisher, Benchemsi, was sued by the government for allegedly “lacking respect for the King” (the trial remains on hold), and three of its issues were seized, with two burned by police, causing massive financial losses for the magazine.

Sadly, today, Nichane’s legacy, its triumphs and its struggles, come to a close, as publisher Benchemsi announces the magazine’s closure.  In the end, it wasn’t the magazine’s legal troubles, but an advertiser boycott initiated by the royal-owned ONA group, a massive holding company that dominates the Moroccan economy.  Despite the publication’s massive popularity, the TelQuel group lost over $1 million. Explained Benchemsi in a press release, “this financial bleeding had to be stopped.”

As documented by the Committee to Protect Journalists, Morocco has seen a backslide in press freedoms over the course of the past few years, following a period of relative openness at the start of Mohammed VI’s reign. From the crippling damages imposed on three dailies for criticizing Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi to the imprisonment of Al-Michaal editor Driss Chahtan for publishing speculations about the health of the King, press freedom in Morocco has experienced a staggering phase of regression in the past year alone.

The latest restrictions on the press should give the international community pause.  As a close ally to the United States, Morocco is frequently posited as a bastion of freedom in the Arab world, and in many ways it is: the country is home to a vibrant independent press, with over 600 daily and weekly publications.  And yet, these independent publications must adhere to strict red lines–taboo topics include the royal family, the Western Sahara, and Islam–or risk punitive measures.

In reality, Morocco is a fickle ally;  it craves the appearance of modernity, but kills the very tools–a free press, strong democratic institutions–that could transform appearance into reality.  The government of King Mohammed VI does not shut down publications outright like its predecessor, preferring instead to find new and creative ways to stifle press freedom.  This time, the irony lies in the use of a very modern tool: the boycott power of a business consortium.

As a result, the monarchy has failed to deliver the promise of a healthy, progressive society that values its citizens.

Recommended:

The Atlantic – Morocco’s Largest Arabic Weekly to Fold Under State Pressure

The Arabist – Morocco’s Nichane folding

11 Comments

  1. http://www.nichane.ma is just a “under construction” page containing a malware. You should remove the link.

  2. Well, Nichane’s case is not that straightforward.

    They first failed as a business, to attract the advertisements its older brother Telquel attracts; precisely because of their unique positioning as a darija magazine. Darija in Morocco is the language of the mass, not the language of the elite; while their liberal stance (anti-islam, anti-government, anti-arab) is the stance of some french-speaking elite, not the stance of the peoples.

    They were not bestsellers: they merely sold 20k copies a week, whereas the bestselling arabic newspaper sells 100k copies a day… Notwithstanding, they were the bestselling weekly in arabic, only because it is a niche market (3 magazines altogether). More important, they did not have the means for their ventures: you cannot fight a battle against the values of a vastly pro-arab, pro-islam country with 1 USDm

    Besides, Nichane was poor because their themes were a copy-paste, or an adaptation of Telquel’s themes, in Darija… It was like reading the same subjects over and over again, in two languages. So, instead of opening its audience, it was in competition with Telquel.

    Finally, were they really expecting financial support from a group of companies they were openly engaged against?

    • Thanks “Moroccan guy” for your thoughtful comments – all of which are good points. You’re right – this is not as straightforward as it seems at first glance, but is nevertheless troubling.

    • Moroccan guy is defending the policies of the Moroccan court. As if they need support besides having the backing of the army, police and the Arab League :-) Anyway, the Moroccan guy’s defence is not fair in my mind for the magazine failed as a business not only because of the points he mentions but, I reckon, most of all because of the point he does not mention: a suspension, some fines, sentences and seizures.

    • van kaas,

      Also true, but his point about Nichane not understanding their demographic is one that comes up again and again in conversations I’ve had lately. They were “too French for darija,” said one friend.

      It’s hard to say – without the suspensions, fines, and other troubles, would Nichane have been a raging success? The issue is twofold: It was partly the controversies that catapulted the magazine into notoriety, but at the same time, those contributed to its economic failures.

      Anyway, I don’t mean to commend Moroccan guy (though after these past couple of weeks, I’m about ready to commend anyone who isn’t a raging lunatic on my blog), but I do think his comments are worth mulling over.

  3. van kaas,

    I see your point; governments and lobbies are mostly “the bad guys”; but facts are stubborn, and there are two sides of a story.
    The fact is Nichane folded because they weren’t supported by many people. And that is precisely what they say in their press communiqué, they failed because advertisers do not support them. That is not my point; this is Nichane’s.

    Jillian,

    That is precisely my point. Their business model was to create controversy, and open the debate to the fringes of Moroccan society (Proud gays, atheists, Moroccan secessionists …); which attracted some kind of public. The fact is; arabic speaking advertisers mostly do not like this kind of magazines; whereas for example Telquel runs adverts for alcohol brands; cigars; luxury real estate etc. for French speaking rich people. Not quite the same public.

  4. @Moroccan guy: “The fact is Nichane folded because they weren’t supported by many people.”

    True enough. I can’t help but think that Nichane folded because of the theocratic nature of Morocco, the state-sponsored Islamic propaganda that starts as early as primary education. Nichane had a somewhat secular, anti-patriarchal, anti-homophobic editorial line.

    I don’t know where you come up with the fact that Nichane is anti-Arab. That’s a load of bollocks. Unless you consider it anti-Arab to want to give Moroccans the choice to name their kids with Amazigh names and to add other languages to the all-dominating language of the Quran. Think about it, Mr. facts-are-stubborn; Do you call anti-Men people who demand sons not be discriminated against in inheritance laws at the expense of daughter?

    Yours is a classic knee-jerk Morrocan nationalist and Muslim reaction.

  5. Jillian,
    How do you explain the fact that Almassae (www.almassae.press.ma) did not go bankrupt though it was boycotted by many companies, several of them are pro-government?
    Regards

    • Jamal,
      I don’t know the specific advertisers or the specific readership, so I can’t explain how Al Massae is still afloat despite their troubles. Each case is different.

      -Jillian

  6. Hey Jillian,

    The link to ONA site is no longer reachable.

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