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Media Matters: discussing journalism in the age of Trump with Aboubakr Jamaï

Renowned journalist Aboubakr Jamai shared his thoughts about the current state of the press. (Courtesy of Flickr)
Renowned journalist Aboubakr Jamai shared his thoughts about the current state of the press. (Courtesy of Flickr)

As someone who attempts to be informed on current events, I’ve found President Trump’s statements regarding the media (and journalism) both remarkable and horrific. They’re remarkable in that they emerge from someone who has been placed in charge of “the free world” – and from someone who inhabits a country partly founded upon the right of free expression. Yet his remarks are even more horrific in that they hint at a desire to repress that otherwise inalienable right – at least, to those who disagree with his views. He threatens not only the freedom of the people and the press, but also our collective right to access the truth.

In part, my anxiety regarding Trump’s statements is also rooted in my recent experience abroad. Over the winter break, I had the opportunity to travel through France, Morocco, Gibraltar and Spain through IAU College. Through this program, I also met Aboubakr Jamaï, the dean of IAU’s School of Business and International Relations. Jamaï is perhaps more globally renowned as one of the most prominent dissident journalists in recent Moroccan history.

In the wake of Trump’s statements, I immediately thought to consult with Jamaï. I was able to interview Jamaï via Skype regarding his own experience with journalistic repression. A businessman by training, Jamaï turned towards journalism in the late 1990s when he founded the Casablanca-based French-language magazine Le Journal (later Le Journal Hebdomadaire, “The Weekly Journal”). The emergence of this independent magazine was remarkable, especially as it came at the end of the repressive reign of King Hassan II.

The years of Hassan II’s rule (known as the Years of Lead) were infamous for their heavy handed application of torture and violence against dissidents. However, Morocco began to reform its approach to human rights by the early 1990s. The death of Hassan II in 1999 was perceived as the catalyst for further reform. The new king, Mohammed VI, seemed ready to usher Morocco into this promised age of freedom.

Yet Le Journal began to report on subjects (including the Western Sahara conflict) that the Moroccan government preferred to keep under wraps.

“We were banned within the first year of the King’s reign,” Jamaï notes.

Though Le Journal was a relatively popular publication, it became the target of countless lawsuits and fines, as well as “government-organized” advertising boycotts. After accruing hundreds of thousands of USD in debt, Le Journal was forcibly shuttered in 2010.

It seemed difficult for me to parallel Jamaï’s experience with Trump’s threats against press liberty. After all, Trump’s Twitter-tantrum tactics hardly resemble the subtle devastation Moroccan officials were able to inflict upon Le Journal. I mentioned Trump’s declaration that “fake news” sources including CNN and The New York Times are “the enemy of the people.” By the time of my interview with Jamaï, Press Secretary Sean Spicer had recently prevented several sources (including NYT) from attending a press briefing.

“I sense that Trump is aware of the backlash [to these recent events] and has stepped back a bit, though the press briefing restrictions absolutely represent something dangerous,” Jamaï said.

Even so, Jamaï is optimistic that U.S. journalists can overcome Trump’s tactics of fear mongering and deception. However, Jamaï is more concerned about the current state of the American press.

“The issue right now isn’t a lack of access to information,” he explained. “Rather, readers are being bombarded with too much information, and they’re left with a kind of indigestion. The ideal job of the journalist [in this case] is to help readers digest and understand all this information.”

But in a political climate where left and right wing writers seem to be reporting in “two different languages,” it’s difficult to imagine a secure space for this kind of work; readers are more inclined to engage with publications that align with their political views.

This division, Jamaï argues, is poisonous to democracy. He observes that “social media has [especially] helped us create ideological ‘bubbles’ where we can ignore viewpoints beyond our own.” This bubble stunts our ability to contend with opposing arguments, leading to a further deterioration of relations (and debate skills) between the two current political sides. If we (as readers and writers) intend to transcend this bubble and enact any kind of lasting change to the current political climate, we must be well versed in the truth, as well as the gamut of opinions that surround this reality.

As a reader and writer, I’m still struggling to digest Jamaï’s comments. As much as I try to pursue “the truth,” I know that I still surround myself with sources (and friends) that align with my point of view. While I can contend with disagreement, it is difficult to imagine myself constantly reading and engaging with media that wholly opposes my world view, particularly when these viewpoints also seem bent on denying the humanity of others. And yet it is necessary to recognize the presence (and the nature) of these attitudes, just as it is necessary for both sides to engage with reality. If we’re to survive Trump’s regime, we mustn’t lose ourselves in his divisive tactics. Above all, we must continue to seek out, report and understand the truth, whether it confirms our biases or otherwise.