For true freedom of expression to exist, there must be effective checks and balances against executive power. There must be an independent judiciary applying libel and other press related laws independently. There must be a freely elected parliament reflecting the diversity of the people. Of course, these prerequisites are not sufficient: the United Kingdom’s libel laws remain one of the most atrocious of all Westminster-style democracies despite the UK’s splendid judiciary and its comparatively lively Parliament. They remain essential : no effective freedom of expression, of which the press is of course the backbone, can exist in the absence of these conditions.
Let us not waste our time needlessly here: none of these conditions apply to Morocco. No need to read through John Waterbury’s masterpiece and only superficially outdated analysis, “Commander of the faithful .” Reading through a few articles in Morocco’s lightweight constitution is amply sufficient (and I will spare you the dismally drafted first chapter of the Constitution, devoted to basic principles): not only does the Monarch concentrate powers in his hands as demonstrated in the different sections of the Constitution, but his person is “sacred and inviolable” (article 23), the Monarch may address messages to the Nation and both houses of Parliament, which “shall not be subject to any debate” (article 28). As an extraordinary sign of departure from democratic practice, parliamentarians may be prosecuted, arrested and imprisoned for votes and opinions cast or expressed in Parliament, “when the opinions expressed may be injurious to the monarchical system and the religion of Islam or derogatory to the respect owed the King” (article 39).
With no checks and balances but rather an unchecked unbalance in favor of the King, individual and collective rights in Morocco are at His Majesty’s pleasure. Their scope is widened either when it so agrees with the Monarch, or when internal or external pressure make the political costs of repression too high for a régime that stakes much of its external political capital on an image of “moderation” and “tolerance”. There is therefore no contradiction in acknowledging the relative liberalization of political mores in Morocco since around 1991 (year of the publication of Gilles Perrault’s “Notre ami le Roi”, which proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, prompting a general amnesty of political prisoners and exiles), and bemoaning the sorry state of democratic freedom in 2009.
Another important factor must also be weighed in: contrary to the situation that prevailed in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, there is today no credible and popular political opposition to the régime. The left has been either fully neutered (this is the case with the formerly socialist USFP and the formerly communist PPS) or marginalized (the socialist PSU and PADS, both spin-offs of the USFP, and the still Marxist-Leninist Annahj addimoqrati). The trade-unions, for their part, have been either been successfully cut off from politics (this is the case of the UMT) or have felt the effects of the incessant partisan scissions – the CDT, formerly close to the USFP, has split, while each split in other leftist parties has produced yet another acronym to add to the long list of Moroccan trade-unions. As for the Islamist factions, the two main ones – the PJD and Al adl wal ihsan – have fared differently: while the PJD has progressively been drawn and pressured into the bland and supine bunch of pro-Palace parties (although parts of the party resist that evolution, witness Mustapha Ramid), Abdeslam Yassine’s Al adl wal ihsan has felt the sharper edge of the makhzen’s political management techniques, still in a legal limbo with continued police and judiciary harassment of its leaders and sympathizers.
The recurrent swing between periods of repression and periods of relative tolerance – plainly visible as regards freedom of the press – is therefore not so much reflecting a real balance of power than the relatively autonomous policy choices of the Palace. Boubker Jamaï, founder of the most fiercely critical francophone magazine in Morocco, Le Journal, admits that the Palace sees both Le Journal and Ahmed Reda Benchemsi’s Tel Quel as vital to Morocco’s democratic façade (a privilege they undoubtedly owe not only to their editorial independence, but also to their being published in French, and thus widely relied on by foreign journalists and diplomats in Morocco), and that it therefore avoids going too far in its tit-for-tat relationship with the two.
The press sector in Morocco is an excellent example of how this cycle works. Ever since Morocco’s colonization, and the birth of a modern Moroccan press, newspapers have been at the frontline of the political fight over power. Repression has been a constant, whether under the French and Spanish occupation or since independence. In the 60’s and the 70’s, after the current Press Code was enacted (1958), seizures, closures, arrests and condemnations were rife – not to mention prior censorship. But at that time, the articles and opinions that led to repression were indeed subversive as I have noted earlier: the régime itself was bluntly attacked on ideological grounds, and described as authoritarian, medieval, neo-colonialist and oppressive. The papers voicing these opinions were mostly partisan papers, belonging to the USFP, the Istiqlal or the PCM (the PPS’ communist predecessor). They thus voiced political opinions susceptible of action by political parties and trade-unions.
Today, while some aspects of press censorship have abated – there’s no more prior censorship, except of course the self-censorship that most Moroccans writing publicly on political matters prudently opt for, and imprisonment of erring journalists tends to be exceptional – others are repeated yet again today – seizures, closures, while a new censorship instrument is now at the fore – libel charges, coupled with hefty fines and damages. What strike me however are the often ludicrous pretexts used to knock down independent titles: a poll on King Mohammed VI’s reign with figures that all elected heads of state would die for (the famous 91% poll that got Tel Quel in trouble in August) or a foolish caricature on a Prince’s wedding to a German Muslim. In other instances, they punished unduly harshly for real violations of press law (such as Rachid Nini’s Al Massae’s 6 million dirhams – roughly 550.000€ – condemnation for defamation of public prosecutors in Ksar el Kébir, whom he had accused of homosexuality, which is still a criminal act under Moroccan law).
What is striking today is that the editorials and articles triggering the clampdown are very subdued in comparison to those of the 60’s or 70’s – no longer is the principle of monarchy contested, nor is the Monarch described with various less than flattering adjectives. Most articles among those having led to judicial consequences recently have been critical on specific items of public policy, or generally critical of some tendencies in the Palace’s behavior or actions. None has condemned the régime in the radical ways of the 60’s or 70’s. Today’s independent press can be hard-hitting, on corruption or nepotism – and outside of the royal circle, some décideurs can be eviscerated in the press: royal treasurer Mounir Majidi, royal buddy Fouad Ali el Himma or minister of foreign affairs Taïeb Fassi Fihri are not spared.
With the fatal decline of the partisan press, the major newspapers no longer have a natural political partner to fall back on – nor are they on the other hand subject to the Byzantine alliances and politics that hamper any partisan media’s attempt at independent scrutiny of government. This of course reflects the weakness of the political parties and trade-unions, much less active and militant than the NGOs (feminist, Amazigh, Islamist or human-rights oriented) that nowadays dominate Morocco’s militant scene. This in its turn is a substantial weakness in Morocco’s political system: NGOs can blog, petition or sit in front of Parliament till they’re blue in the face, journalists can write or editorialize till their arms fall off, but they are not in the – formal – decision loop that sits squarely with the Palace, Parliament and ministries. This not only reduces the leftist or Islamist opposition to background music, but also weakens the Palace’s hand: no longer can it credibly claim to have its plans thwarted by lofty leftists or restive Islamists, when it controls the whole political scene.
In that sense, the recent clampdown on Morocco’s remaining independent press could mark the decline of the refined sense of equilibrium that prevailed since the last few years of Hassan II, when the Palace seemed to recognize that its power would be more efficient if its legitimacy was perceived as being more and more rooted in modern democratic principles and respect of individual rights. While the massive killings, kidnappings and arrests of the années de plomb (“years of lead”) have not been repeated and are unlikely to be, the hegemonic control of society – at the very least in the political and religious fields – still seems to hold sway over hearts and minds among Morocco’s ruling circle.
And this hegemony is now extending into Morocco’s independent press – being already a norm in Moroccan radio and television channels, none of which can be described as independent. What remains for concerned Moroccan citizens is the abysmal or non-existing coverage of Morocco on foreign satellite or radio channels, or the very uneven information material provided through the Internet (and I have personally always felt that bloggers’ or twitterers’ claims to political fame to be ludicrously overrated). Whereas information flows infinitely more freely today than decades ago, the political potency of such free flows of ideas and opinions is limited by the reduction into insignificance of the other democratic elements of Morocco’s political scene, namely political parties and trade-unions.