WAN-IFRA bestows its annual Gebran Tueni Award on a newspaper publisher or editor in the Arab world who demonstrates the free press values upheld by the Lebanese publisher and democracy advocate who was assassinated in Beirut in December 2005.
Gebran Tueni was a unique figure in WAN-IFRA affairs for almost 20 years, as a leading member of the organisation’s Press Freedom Committee, a board member for more than a decade, and a constant adviser to the leadership of the association on Arab and press freedom issues. Although he knew he was a high-priority target for the killers trying to undermine the political process in Lebanon, he chose to stay at the helm of his newspaper, An-Nahar, which under his leadership was a beacon for independent journalism in the Arab world.
The 2010 award recognises the exceptional career of Moroccan publisher Aboubakr Jamaï, who has fought tirelessly for 13 years to keep his newspaper editorially independent and financially afloat despite huge pressures. WAN-IFRA interviewed the man who led the struggle to save one of Morocco’s – and indeed the Arab world's – most outspoken and fiercely independent publications, Le Journal Hebdomadaire.
The creative ambition of a businessman
Aboubakr Jamaï’s career began far from the newsroom. After graduating with a diploma in business in 1992 he entered the stock market, co-founding a Moroccan investment bank. At the time, Morocco was undergoing a set of liberal reforms in its financial systems. But this urge for modernisation and reform clashed with the powerful lobby of the country’s commercial banks.
Facing failure and frustration, the young Aboubakr Jamaï felt he had a story to tell, and nowhere to tell it. “I felt I couldn’t express or communicate what had just happened. There was no reaction from the press for multiple reasons: corruption, political pressure, but also, because of the total absence of a specialised press dedicated to finance and economy. At that moment, I realised just how important the economic literacy of the population really is. Once you grasp things economically, you have a better idea of what the government does and you become a more critical and therefore engaged citizen.”
This realisation coincided with a relative opening-up of the Moroccan political landscape. The conditions were optimal for the creation of Le Journal. “It was the perfect moment to start such an adventure. A complete lack of economic and financial journalism and what seemed to be the necessary political reforms all coincided in that instance.”
The story would not be complete without mentioning one of Aboubakr Jamaï’s dominant personal characteristics, however: he is a born-entrepreneur. "I love the adrenaline and excitement that comes when establishing a business, and at that particular moment, a newspaper. It was the beginning of a true adventure.”
A family tradition of political activism
Though his background was in finance, the unpredictable and politically charged world of journalism wasn’t exactly new to him: his father, Khalid Jamaï, was a journalist and a political activist, along with his grandfather and one of his uncles.
“When I was a kid, I remember my father telling me, ‘I dream for you that you live what I have lived: to wake up every single day to do what you are passionate about,’ In 1973, he was put in jail and tortured for his work as a journalist. I really admired them all, and through them I met people who fought and even died for their ideas. This gives you strength, it helps you to remain strong in times of trouble and allows you to face all kinds of obstacles.”
Armed with his family’s history of political involvement, his burning ambition and entrepreneurial qualities, Aboubakr Jamaï and his carefully assembled team looked for the last ingredient to complete their new adventure – across the Mediterranean in Spain.
The model of El País and the Prisa Group
In creating Le Journal, Aboubakr Jamaï and his team found inspiration in the example of Spanish newspaper El País. “We had in mind a similar evolution to that of El País. Start small and then develop as the regime opened-up politically. They had started with the weekly El Triunfo under Franco’s regime, and at the time of his death they had founded El País, which later went on to become the huge conglomerate it is today. In every authoritarian regime, the scarce editorial freedom that exists can usually be found in weekly titles. Weeklies seem to be the only economically viable model under those conditions. We thought that once Morocco had achieved its political reforms we would seek to invest in a printing press, found a newspaper, then a radio, a television, etc. But you already know the end of this particular story: real political reform in Morocco was never achieved.”
The turbulent story of Le Journal Hebdomadaire
At the beginning, things looked so different. In 1997, Aboubakr Jamaï and his group of fellow financial graduates founded Le Journal Hebdomadaire (The Weekly). The newspaper made a reputation for itself by covering issues that had been until then ignored by the Moroccan press: the monarchy, corruption, the army, and violations against human rights. These issues and its quality investigative journalism led to political and economic pressures, smear campaigns and judicial attacks.
In January 2010, after years of suffering from a debilitating government-ordered advertising boycott, Le Journal was forced to declare bankruptcy, unable to honour mounting debts and steep fines levied against it for alleged defamation.
“The closure was devastating for two reasons,” said Aboubakr Jamaï, ”The first was becasue I always considered Le Journal as home, a physical, tangible, visible place I could always come back to…. But it’s the second reason that makes me lose sleep still to this day: the fact of not being able to pay my employees at the end of the month. One gets to know his employees, their families. One sees them progress, knows when they get loans at the bank, when they buy cars, a house, when they have kids. And so you feel responsible, and you know that if they’re not paid at the end of the month, all of that is jeopardised. All these fears materialised when Le Journal closed down.
“It’s not easy to publish something when you know it can have direct consequences on your employees. It’s the irresolvable dilemma of the publisher, between journalistic integrity and his responsibility as a businessman. The government’s advertising boycott forced us to have to choose between changing our editorial line and cutting jobs. Painfully, we decided to stick to our editorial line. Something I will never forget was the communiqué the employees issued the day of the closure, declaring they had no quarrels with the leadership of Le Journal and stating that it had always done its best to maintain the company. This meant a lot, to know they understood the struggle we went through to try to save the company.”
Aboubakr Jamaï lives in Murcia, Spain. He has taught courses in Political Islam and Middle East Politics in the United States and currently manages the French-speaking news website fr.lakome.com.