Slate’s African Cousin Goes South

For a brief two years, Slate Afrique -a subsidiary of a partly owned spinoff of a Washington Post property-was a quality, pan-African outlet for magazine-style, first-rate work by local journalists across much of the continent. But according to French investigative site Mediapart, an unhealthy intersection of French investors too eager for Moroccan money, and perhaps a little bit too much actual journalism getting done, has plunged Slate Afrique into chaos.

The atmosphere has been tense in the newsroom of Slate Afrique for the past few months: The editor in chief and his deputy sacked for financial reasons. Stringers and bloggers unpaid for weeks. A breakdown in communication between management and a portion of their troops. All this against the backdrop of an announced editorial reboot.

Launched in 2011 by the founders of Slate France–Jean-Marie Colombani, Eric Leser, Jacques Attali, Eric Le Boucher and Johan Hufnagel-Slate Afrique‘s ambition was to have a team of African journalists who would write in-depth stories about African countries, for readers in those countries. Pierre Cherruau, the site’s editor since its launch, told Mediapart that he received notice of his termination for financial reasons on Jan. 29. Officially, his firing doesn’t take effect until the end of March, but he has been invited to stay home effective immediately. His deputy, Philippe Randrianarimanana, was also fired, and left the newsroom at the beginning of February. For the moment, Slate France editor Johan Hufnagel is running the site.

On Jan. 10, newsroom editors were told that Slate Afrique was running out of money and should stop commissioning articles from its regular stringers. Up to that point, stringers were paid about 100 Euros for thousand-word articles. The site’s bloggers were to be deprived of their 300 monthly Euros as well.

But there is more to the situation than a simple interruption of new articles. According to our sources, several stringers have not been paid in months, and the site owes at least two of them several thousand Euros. Their demands for payment or an explanation have been met with silence from management. None of the site’s contributors have been officially let go. The persistent silence of management compelled at least one contributor to file a case with [France’s] employment commission. The explanation given to several contributors now: Slate Corporate Secretary Claire Blandin broke her ankle at the end of December and was on medical leave for many weeks, causing the interruption of their pay.

Francophone Africa Doesn’t Read Magazines

Contacted by Mediapart, Slate France CEO Eric Leser confirmed that the administrator’s medical leave was the reason for “delays in payments, which are now being processed.” He also acknowledged a bigger issue with three or four stringers who are claiming we owe them more money than we think we do.” These unusual cases should be “quickly resolved,” according to Leser. More importantly, he announced a shift in course for the site, with a new approach to be launched in March. A shift which implies “reshuffling the deck: we’ll keep some of our stringers; others, not.”

No more in-depth articles of the kind seen on Slate France or its American bigger brother (property of the Washington Post, which holds a 15 percent stake in the French site). “We will be more interested in aggregating content,” said Leser, explaining that in Francophone Africa “the magazine model doesn’t really work,” and that “readers seem to prefer their news instantaneous and in quantity.”

Leser said Slate Afrique is not bankrupt, although he acknowledges that the site has lost “a lot of money” over the past couple of years; this despite an infusion of capital in March 2012 from Orange Telecom, which holds a 34 percent stake. According to our sources, Orange put in 650,000 Euros. A radical editorial reshuffle would however be needed. And experienced journalists like Pierre Cherruau, a veteran of Courrier International, will no longer be needed at the reins.

A Crook, or a Muckraker?

One of the site’s jettisoned journalists of particular note: Ali Amar, a Moroccan journalist and aggressive opponent of the regime in Morocco; author of Paris-Marrakech: Luxe, Pouvoir et Reseaux (with Le Monde veteran Jean-Pierre Tuquoi) and Mohammed VI : Le Grand Malentendu. On Monday Feb. 18, a very critical article on the site Demain Online opened the polemic about Amar’s firing. It suggested that Slate Afrique, on the hunt for financial partners in Morocco, had fired the dissident journalist to please the regime and its toadies.

Amar told Mediapart that “I have never been told directly that I am no longer a contributor to the site, but the articles that I sent to Slate Afrique stopped being published in January. To the best of my knowledge, this decision was made without informing [editor Cherruau]. Amar plans to file suit against Slate for malicious termination and nonpayment of several articles. “My work raised the site’s profile significantly in Morocco, where it has its second largest readership after France.”

A December 28 email from Eric Leser to several people at Slate Afrique, including its two editors–in which he violently attacked the Moroccan journalist–put an end to the relationship between Ali Amar and Slate Afrique. Here is the email, obtained by Mediapart:

Hello, Ali Amar does not work for Slate anymore. This guy is a crook, and he has already cost us far too much, by scaring off all the [potential]Moroccan partners we have been in talks with. We should have made this decision sooner. Regards, Eric.

The contents of the email raise a number of questions: Why would Amar be ‘a crook’? What does Leser mean by scaring off “Moroccan partners”? To Amar, it is clear: he is being punished for his criticism of the Morrocan king and those around him.

Ali Amar also wonders if there was another reason for his termination: an article he wrote about French tax exiles in Morocco, excerpted from the book he wrote with Tuquoi. In this article, “which Slate never published, but which eventually ran on Demain Online,” Amar points to Charles Milhaud, former head of [banking and insurance conglomerate]Caisse d’Epargne, once very close to [Slate France cofounder] Jean-Marie Colombani. As Mediapart revealed in a 2009 article, Caisse d’Epargne were shareholders in an investment fund, Viveris management, which put 1.5 million euros into Slate France. Viveris was acquired a year ago by investment bank Altium. But Viveris is also a shareholder in Morocccan media conglomerate Geomedia, with which Slate just happened to be in talks about creating a new site: Slate Morocco! Ali Amar makes the obvious connection, and points out that Leser’s email seems to confirm it.

Pierre Cherruau, as well, wondered what exactly the CEO’s email meant. In his reply sent on Jan. 2, after he returned from vacations, he wrote: “I am surprised that a decision to stop working with one of Slate Afrique‘s contributors, Ali Amar, was made without consulting me. You describe this writer as a crook. Do you have any information to back up this characterization? If so, as the Editor in Chief, I would of course like to see it. Moreover, given the serious nature of your email, I am surprised that you cc’d it to several of my colleagues. I would have preferred that we discuss it before any final decision was made and announced to Slate Afrique‘s newsroom.”

Cherruau told Mediapart, “I never received an answer to this email, and never had an explanation of the whole thing.”

Eric Leser gave us an explanation today: “When I sent that email, I was a bit irritated, because I had just been told that Ali Amar had used large excerpts from his latest book in his article on Moroccan taxes. That is why his article was not published on Slate. And this was not the first time.” Leser showed us three other examples of what he considered cases of plagiarism with other excerpts ‘borrowed’ from other sites, and he assured us that there were many others.

Ali Amar completely rejects these accusations. “When I use elements of my own work, I always put a footnote, and I only do it rarely,” said Amar, who said he had noticed that some of these footnotes had been deleted from the site for inexplicable reasons. Furthermore, he said, “I have never been officially notified of these accusations.” Newsroom editors confirm that Amar was never officially reprimanded.

The Moroccan Partners

But how does Leser explain his reference to “Moroccan partners”? Yesterday, he assured the site Yabiladi that he had never written that line. Today however, his memory returned, and he explained to Mediapart that he was referring to “a number of advertisers who told us: we won’t buy ads with you because of Ali Amar’s presence on your site.” But he immediately adds “Ali Amar is a fly in the ointment who annoys plenty of people in Morocco, and that is just fine. Slate Afrique is an independent site, and there are nothing is politically off limits in our pages.” He assures us that advertisers and commercial partners have no influence over the content of the site. He acknowledges that there were discussions with [Morocco’s] Geomedia until the middle of 2012, but they did not pan out. (To Yabiladi he had claimed that these negotiations had taken place ‘two years ago.’) But he repeats: “we do not mix finances with the editorial side.”

But among the stringers, and in the hallways of the site’s headquarters, numerous rumors have circulated: a certain closeness between [cofounder]Jean Marie Colombani and the Moroccan regime, and also between [cofounder]Jacques Attali and the Ivoirian president, Alassane Ouattara and Congo Brazzaville president Denis Sassou Nguesso. Some writers affirm that several times, criticisms of certain African officials have been deleted from articles on the site.

“There is no censorship,” Leser replies. The only alterations? “There are no politically off-limits opinions on our sites, as long as the articles are not defamatory. We are, though, careful to avoid ad hominem attacks which might be libelous.”

Emerging from the present crisis, Slate Afrique will likely be back underway in a few weeks, but with a lot less sail on the mast. And what of Slate France? It has been announced that the site will finish 2012 in the black. “We just about broke even 2012, within a few tens of thousands of Euros,” Eric Leser says. We will have to take his word for it, since the site hasn’t made its books public since 2010.

Dan Israel