I am writing this as an outsider, albeit one with a fondness for and experience with life in Morocco. I am an American who lived in Morocco from 2001 to 2008 and visited many times in the years before that. While living there, I was an administrator of a language school and later did cultural research while running my own business. I speak a little French and a lot of Moroccan Darija (dialectical Arabic). I spent very little time in the expatriate community and most of my time engaged with Moroccan friends, coworkers, and people I met in cafes and on the street. My perspective is based on those foundations.
When I first moved to Morocco the nation was still in a honeymoon stage. King Mohammed VI had been in power for only a couple of years since the death of his father, King Hassan II. The contrast was striking. It was as if the country was taking a deep breath and sighing with pleasure as the tension of many years was being released. New freedoms were being granted and promised and it seemed the sun was a little brighter. There were new, independent press ventures beginning left and right as old controls were eased and people began to report events from their own points of view instead of those of the government or an approved political party. However, very few, if any, chose to test the new boundaries right away. The memory of Hassan II’s secret prisons and the random disappearance of people who were outspoken against him was still quite strong.
While there was a promise of a new freedom of thought and expression, none were yet willing to find out whether this was a mere promise or a reality or where the safe lines lay. Editors continued to keep criticisms reined in and expressed only mildly, if ever. The first instances that I can recall during that time of limit testing were made by religious conservatives who voiced their complaints that the new king wasn’t a good enough Muslim and wasn’t worthy to sit on the throne. Granted, they thought the same thing about his father, but during his reign they were not willing to say so in voices above a whisper in places other than dark corners. Most in the society cheered, or at least smiled, when these early critics were arrested or otherwise silenced.
It is important to recall that this was happening in the early aftermath of 9/11 in New York and no one wanted to be publicly connected to groups who could be linked in any way to terrorist acts or philosophies that birth them. A wider form of censorship came to my attention later when a magazine called “Nichane” published an issue containing a number of jokes in Moroccan Darija, some of which directly made fun of the king and the government. At that moment I was doing research in my free time on Moroccan humor for a book which I later published, and I wanted very much to have a copy of the magazine. It took me three weeks and lots of questioning, prompting, and assurances that I had no connection with the government to acquire a copy–first as a photocopy of the issue, followed a couple more weeks later by an original copy purchased on the black market by a friend.
The comments and humor contained in the magazine were coarse and shocking for Moroccan literary society, but quite subdued compared to what I heard on the street daily. Compared to what might be heard in Europe or North America by local writers discussing their governments, the comments about the Moroccan government in this magazine were polite and deferential and the issue seemed overblown and silly. Most people I knew at the time said they felt the palace was being hypersensitive and insecure. This last sentence, I believe, is the crux of the matter.
For complete freedom of the press to appear and exist in Morocco there must be both a willingness of the monarchy to allow dissent to be voiced and criticism to be aired, as well as an active display of good faith in clearly outlining what it will or will not allow. At the moment, there are no clear or published guidelines as to what is or is not permissible, and what rules are known or inferred are enforced inconsistently; one person or entity may get away with saying something for which another would be punished. This has to change.
I believe the foundation for all of the suppression is fear, most likely based in personal insecurities. Hassan II survived multiple assassination attempts early in his reign and the paranoia they created in their aftermath was felt for decades afterward. Mohammed VI has experienced no such attempts and his throne and rule are relatively secure. He is imperfect, but generally well liked and respected and his fears of criticism seem unfounded. Why this king is so insecure is unknown, but overcoming that insecurity is going to be foundational in any attempt to bring freedom of the press to Morocco. There has to be a willingness of the palace to hear vocal and sometimes strong disagreement with its actions and policies. Another factor that is less foundational, but still vitally important involves society in general. While it is common for Moroccans to state strong opinions in their homes and in cafes, usually while surrounded by others who agree with what is being said, there is not a societal norm for positive discourse on controversial topics. Whether the controversy involves religion and how one should live out their beliefs or something more transient like the number of buses being run by a municipality, people in Morocco tend to either keep quiet or state their opinion vehemently to try to suppress alternate viewpoints. As an outsider it took me some time to realize that disagreement was okay in those instances, but that it had to happen with the same or greater vigor and volume as the original opinion was stated. This leads to a society of shouting at, rather than discussing with, opponents.
If freedom of the press is to take hold in Morocco, I believe it will be incumbent on members of Moroccan society to learn to listen to others without forcing them to win an emotional battle of decibels. A free press requires a willingness to allow ideas to flow without restriction, but it reaches its full potential when this happens in a place where those thoughts may be heard and considered, and ultimately to be made better with counterarguments and refinements. The beginning necessitates the liberty to speak ones mind. The end requires a will to listen, consider, and respond constructively to those thoughts. The palace has yet to show either, but when it will do so, society will respect it far more for the engagement. In a nation that has a 1200 year history of absolute rulers, change from the grassroots is unlikely. However, if the king will be willing to provide an example of thoughtful, respectful, and constructive dialogue with his detractors in an attempt to engage them in finding mutually beneficial solutions to problems held in common, I suggest that he will find a society that will love him more for his strength of character than he impresses now with his willingness to suppress dissent. I also believe he will help create a better nation because of it.