By Kayla Dwyer
CASABLANCA, Morocco – With less than a week before the launch of their news website, about a dozen journalists huddled around computers in a small, modern office, the sun streaming in glass windows that overlook the streets of Casablanca, as they put finishing touches on one of their stories involving government internet surveillance of Moroccan citizens.
“We are old new pioneers,” said Ali Amar, publisher and co-founder of Le Desk, which will go live online today. “We don’t know how the readers will react, but if we succeed, we think there is huge opportunity.”
In a country where independent press has nearly disappeared, this team of journalists is trying once more to bring reporting on hot button issues to Moroccans. This includes controversial “red-line” subjects such as the King Mohammed VI, religion, security issues and the Western Sahara, a disputed territory in North Africa where Morocco has sought claims to sovereignty — topics considered taboo for independent reporting.
“Our mission is to go to abandoned territories for journalists, abandoned by fear … and to give a voice to people who have no voices elsewhere,” Radi said. “There are always people that want to talk, and our job is to find them.”
Several of the journalists in the newsroom of Le Desk worked in Morocco in the early 2000s, during a short period when the press in Morocco was relatively unfettered. Amar co-founded Le Journal during this period, the French weekly that later became Le Journal Hebdomadaire and is most known for its criticism of — and clash with — the palace.
Joining Amar at Le Desk are Omar Radi and Christophe Guguen, journalists who worked in the past investigating topics such as government spending.
It’s not clear whether the journalists at Le Desk can escape government persecution. In a report released Sept. 17, Reporters Without Borders cited numerous instances of government harassment of Moroccan journalists, including the ongoing case against journalist Ali Anouzla, who the palace charged with terrorism in 2013 after he published a link to a Spanish news website that showed a video of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Of more recent interest is the arrest of Hicham Mansouri, a project manager with the Moroccan Association for Investigative Journalism, who had been working on an investigative piece about the Moroccan government’s alleged Internet surveillance of journalists and activists. His lawyers attest that 10 police officers stripped and beat Mansouri when they arrested him on March 17. He then was charged with adultery, a 10-month prison sentence.
The association’s president, Maati Monjib, has been on a hunger strike since Sept. 16 in protest of these actions. And now, Radi said he is picking up where Mansouri left off in his investigation into government surveillance, despite the potential consequences. Morocco ranks 130th out of 180 countries for press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders, below neighboring Algeria (119) and Mauritania (55), reporting “a slow but steady deterioration of [press] freedom” in Morocco. The Ministry of Communication did not respond to a request for comment.
Radi says he knows the risk to himself and the other journalists at Le Desk.
“The principles shared by our staff can give us good journalism, good news and good analysis, but it has limits,” he said. “When we reveal a crime, for example, the only criminals are us, and not the ones we reveal.”
To support its goal of independence, the team at Le Desk is pioneering a new economic model for Moroccan media: one without any advertising. Only paid subscribers will be able to read Le Desk — 60 Dirhams per month, which is about six U.S. dollars.
In the past, the palace has exerted indirect control over independent media by putting pressure on advertisers — a direct hit at the bottom line of many media outlets. In the case of Le Journal Hebdomadaire, cumulating debt from libel lawsuits and an advertising boycott led to the magazine’s shut down in 2010.
“They went after the advertisers, and they killed independent press by killing the business model,” said Aboubakr Jamai, Le Journal’s other co-founder.
Aside from subscriptions, Le Desk has financial backing from Pulse Media, a production company Amar co-founded in January. These backers include Amar and Fatima Zahra Lqadiri, Le Desk’s general director, who together donated two million Dirhams or about 200,000 U.S. dollars; and Aziz Aouadi, an art broker from Meknes and friend of Amar, who also donated two million Dirhams. Amar doesn’t expect a huge audience for his newspaper — only about 5 thousand subscribers at least in the beginning.
“We don’t need a click, we don’t need an audience, we just need independence,” he said.
In addition, Le Desk received a grant of 60,000 Euros — almost 68,000 U.S. dollars — through the Ebticar-Media project, which is co-financed by the European Union and the Canal France International, a French government agency established to support independent media. The purpose of the Ebticar-Media project is to support the development of online media in the Arab world, and this grant is helping the team buy materials and secure its staff. Eventually they hope to train student interns in investigative journalism.
“Morocco lacks real journalists,” said Amar. “People need to know things that are decided in Casablanca and Rabat on their behalf.”
Le Desk’s advertisement-free model — though new to Morocco, and arguably a risk — is something Jamai, editor of the former Le Journal, said has been envisioning for a long time for Moroccan media.
“Maybe there is a sizeable number of citizens who are willing to pay to get good journalism,” he said. “This is something that warrants the trial.’
Those in Le Desk’s newsroom think Morocco is ready.
“We feel people are waiting for an experience like this,” Amar said. “We need this kind of journalism.”
Update: Due to technological problems, Le Desk did not launch on Sept. 21 as planned. Journalist Omar Radi said the bugs will take another three weeks to fix.