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.
The Atlantic – Morocco’s Largest Arabic Weekly to Fold Under State Pressure
The Arabist – Morocco’s Nichane folding