Moroccan journalist Aboubakr Jamaï receives first Tully Free Speech Award

Aboubakr Jamaï shaking hands with Dean David Rubin
Aboubakr Jamaï accepts the Tully Award from former Dean David Rubin.

“We wanted to succeed by doing good journalism and by clearly positioning ourselves as pro-democracy,” Aboubakr Jamaï told a packed auditorium Jan. 31. “We thought it would be feasible. We were wrong. We barely survived.”

Jamaï is the former publisher of Morocco’s leading weekly newspaper, Le Journal Hebdomadaire. He was on campus to receive the first annual Tully Center Free Speech Award from the Newhouse School’s Tully Center for Free Speech. In a conversation with Professor Barbara Fought, director of the Tully Center, Jamaï told how his paper tackled issues like government corruption and corporate impropriety.

Such investigative reporting ultimately led Jamaï to a jail sentence, near financial ruin and forced exile from his country. But he wouldn’t have done anything differently.

“I would have liked not to have some problems,” he said, “but I just loved interacting with Moroccan citizens, having these people coming to me, telling me their stories, discovering things.

“When you share the concerns of people, you report their problems, you defend their rights, you have a priceless reward. And besides,” he added, “I am convinced in my bones that Morocco is absolutely ready to graduate to a democratic society. I just see it and feel it and I want to be part of it.”

Jamaï, 39, began his career in 1993 as an investment banker. His work as a journalist began in 1995, when he began writing a column on the relationship between international financial markets and the Moroccan financial market for a weekly economic newspaper. He co-founded Le Journal in 1997 and Assahifa al-Ousbouiya, an Arab language weekly, in 1998.

“I never studied journalism. I never had a background of being a journalist before publishing Le Journal. I self-appointed myself publisher and editor,” he said. “I remember the first time we went to the printing press, and we were all depressed at the same second because we realized we had to do this every week. It was go grueling. It was so hard emotionally and physically.

“To be frank with you I freaked out. I fled. I went to study in England for one year, and something very interesting happened. The person who replaced me as editor left, and—from my little student room in England—I had to manage the newsroom.

“Events happened, we had to take a position and that’s how we found our voice. This voice had some resonance with the public. Our circulation went up, and we discovered that there was a demand.”

In 2000, the Moroccan government permanently banned both papers due to stories revealing government scandals and misuse of funds. The papers eventually reopened using slightly different names.

In 2001, Jamaï was convicted of defaming Foreign Minister Muhammad Ben Aissa after an article in Le Journal alleged that Aissa had profited from the purchase of an official residence in Washington, D.C.

Jamaï was sentenced to three months in prison and ordered to pay fines and damages totaling $2 million daharim (equivalent to $200,000 U.S. dollars). The sentences were eventually suspended, but Jamaï was forced to resign from Le Journal in 2007, and is now living in the U.S.

“I think you can say a lot of things if you choose carefully your words. The very mission of an editor is to decide what gets to be published and what doesn’t get to be published, and obviously you have to exercise judgment about the impact of your words,” he said.

“There is responsibility on the shoulders of journalists and editors to weigh carefully what they have to say, especially in countries where they don’t have solid institutions for freedom of expression.”

Jamaï won the Committee to Protect Journalists’ International Press Freedom Award in 2003, and was selected by the World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader for 2005. He was a Yale World Fellow in 2004 at Yale University and studied as a Nieman Fellow in 2007 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.

He earned a bachelor’s degree from the Higher Institute of Commerce and Management at Casablanca, and an M.B.A. from Oxford University. He is currently enrolled in the M.P.A. program at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

Jamaï plans to return to Morocco, and to continue in the same line of work. “I’ll tell you what happened with my younger brother. He was a banker as well, and he came to work for us. He was between two jobs and he wanted to occupy himself. He came to me and said, ‘You know, journalism is an incurable disease.’ And, guess what? He’s still a journalist.

“One of the best things about journalism is you get to meet wonderful people, great people, that you wouldn’t meet if you were doing something else. This is a wonderful privilege. Besides the fact that you are connected to your environment, you are connected to your people. I enjoy doing that.

“I certainly plan to go back.”