Translated by Hisham Khribchi from Tout reste à faire
Let’s have a recap. On July 30 Morocco celebrated the tenth anniversary of the reign of King Mohammed VI. Two days later, police raided the offices of the main publisher of TelQuel magazine and destroyed 100,000 copies of the newspaper and its Arabic sister version Nichane. But what crime could the magazines have possibly committed? They have published a survey on the ten years reign of the King. Four days later, it was the turn of the daily French newspaper Le Monde to be banned in Morocco, and for the same crime. In late August, Moroccan authorities mobilized prosecutors and law enforcement officers. Ten Journalists from three different publications were interviewed by the police during hundreds of hours. What was their crime? They published articles on the health of the King. In late September, it was the turn of the Arabic daily newspaper Akhbar Al-Youm: following instructions from the Minister of the Interior, police evacuated the headquarters of the newspaper. Journalists will only later learn by a dispatch from the official news agency, that the paper was under an administrative ban. What was the crime this time? The publication of a caricature of the King’s cousin. And this was only the beginning of a long sequence: French Le Monde and Spanish El Pais daily newspapers were consecutively banned for, among other things, having reproduced the cartoon.
In five months, from June to October 2009, one Moroccan newspaper was shut down, five foreign publications were banned from entry into Morocco, 2 million euros [US$3m] in damages were pronounced against newspapers, 18 months imprisonment and 110 months suspended sentences against journalists, one of which is now in jail. A record for Morocco! All these cases share three constant features that generally characterize press related offenses in Morocco.
The first constant is the arbitrary triggering of prosecutions. Criminal and press codes severely punish infringement of the so-called red lines (monarchy, Islam, the Sahara). The problem is, these lines, supposed to define the “sacred,” are blurred and stretchable at the desire and goodwill of the prosecution and its judicial hierarchy. The indicted copy of Akhbar Al-Youm had been sold throughout a whole weekend and no one saw contempt for the Moroccan flag or a disrespect for the Prince. After a three days of selling, someone suddenly decided there was a case for shutting down a newspaper. And here lies the problem for the Moroccan press: a risky business that is carried out on a minefield of red lines, which no one knows where they begin or where they end. Jean-Francois Julliard, Secretary General of Reporters Without Borders, sums up the situation: “Moroccans themselves do not always understand what is going on in their own country. For foreigners, it is even more difficult, especially that the Moroccan regime is quite unpredictable.” All independent Moroccan journalists will tell you it is a very risky business. The wrath of arbitrary authorities can strike at any moment, at any newspaper. How then to talk about the King of Morocco, Head of State and Chief of the Executive, who decides the fate of 30 million Moroccan souls whilst the law lifts him to the rank of the sacred? It is an untenable situation. Especially after ten years of reign “the political power considers it no longer needs to be liberal,” as noted Driss Ksikes, a former journalist and editor of Nichane who was sentenced to three years suspended imprisonment for undermining the sacredness of the king and who chose to leave journalism, hence avoiding self-censorship.
The second constant concerns judges. There are laws and there are judges who apply the laws. That at least is a gain: unlike the unpredictability of the Moroccan authorities, the behavior of judges is clear and doesn’t admit any ambiguity. In matters of [the king’s] holiness, when you are prosecuted you are automatically convicted. Until proven otherwise, the fact is that in the Morocco of Mohammed VI, as in that of Hassan II before him, no judge has ever dared acquitting anybody in a case in which the royal family was involved. That has simply never happened. Even if that implies some unimaginable judicial stunts. In the case of TelQuel, there was no legislation that prohibits public opinion polls on the King of Morocco. In December 2006, a bill had been proposed to prohibit such polls but was abandoned. How can the judge in this situation endorse the administrative ban of the newspaper? He did not fear the ridicule and motivated his decision as follows: “it would have been pointless to overturn the ban, since in any case, the seized copies had already been destroyed,” the judge declared. But there’s worse. Whenever the King is involved, the Moroccan judges forget even the basics of their mission, and that is to judge with humanity. In 2007, Nasser Ahmed was sentenced to three years in jail for having chanted slogans against King Mohammed VI. He died in prison. He was 95 years old. Ninety-five. Neither his old age nor his poor paralytic health were sufficient to inspire clemency to the judge. He sent a deadly ill old man to perish in prison. Without mercy, heartless.
Everyone will understand that even with the best criminal code and the most liberal of press codes in the world, Moroccan judges will continue to systematically pronounce sentences against opinion and press offenses whenever issues related sacredness come up. Because they do not judge according to texts of the law, but according to the customs in use, and mainly because they are afraid. “Judges are very serious whenever the monarchy is concerned. The law becomes immediately irrelevant, and all those who are supposed to ensure compliance to it, obey only one thing: fear. They are afraid that someone, somewhere, may accuse them of complacency with an “enemy” of the monarchy- even an alleged one, even for stupid reasons,” writes a Moroccan columnist.
The third constant is no less disturbing because it reveals a major regression in the Moroccan political culture. Recent cases were indicative of contemporary cowardice. Despite what observers may say, one must face the obvious: with the exception of some Moroccan associations, activists, some journalists and Internet users, there are probably a large majority of Moroccans who approve of, understand and justify such abuses. As for the political class, supposed to support freedom of expression, it counts in its ranks more courtiers than activists. And this does not bode well for the future. King Mohammed VI enjoys true popularity in Morocco, so much so that whatever arbitrary the motives of prosecution raised against journalists, and whatever severe the convictions, they do not provoke disapproval and do not raise much indignation in the public opinion. We will spare our readers here a reminder of contemporary Moroccan history, but the fact is that in recent years political opposition has been smashed so that the only opponents left today are… journalists. Before, newspapers were banned in Morocco for virulently challenging the foundations of power or explicitly attacking the King. Today they are banned for no reason, for a caricature or a survey, and in general indifference. Before, there was a strong political foothold represented by a strong political class which, although under control, fought against absolute power. Today there is a quasi-absolute power in Morocco, with no balancing opposition other than that of the press. Before, there was an aware political culture and political consciousness in the country, today it consists in finding a way to get as much closer to power as possible, and a group of people who succeeded in convincing Moroccans that economic progress is a “favor” granted to them. In writing this I am aware that this will intrigue and disturb the reader. Of course freedoms have improved a lot during the reign of Mohammed VI, his late father having set the bar so low it was easy for him to cross. But the reality is we built too much on the achievements of the first two years of the reign of the King, since which freedoms have stagnated. In exchange the political culture has largely diminished: for many politicians and actors in the civil society, and for many Moroccans in matters of freedoms everything has been achieved in the 1999-2002 period and the best thing to do now is to put one’s fate in the hands of the King and his men. Even if this means ignoring the abuses against freedom of opinion and expression. Our Tunisian neighbors know something about this model.
They say sometimes that asking the question is a way of answering it. And in reminding you of these three constants, I do not dodge the question that is asked here: “What will it take for real freedom of the press to settle in Morocco?” Changing the legislation and clearly defining the red lines are for sure necessary and capital, at least to reduce prison sentences. But this will not solve the problem. We have seen that one can be punished for an offense that is not even provided by the law. There is law on the one hand and there is the weak link called Justice that upholds this law. Judges who are the product of public Law schools, are not intellectually and legally better off than any enforcement officer or Caïds (local administrators). By diversifying the routes of access to the judicial office in Morocco, we would have provided for more fresh, more daring and perhaps even more independent judges.
These “technical” measures, although essential, would not solve a problem that is much deeper and infinitely more complicated. On the one hand, and I say this with great pain in my heart, it seems that the Moroccan society is not particularly adamant at requesting reforms to ensure more freedoms. In any case this is far from being its primary concern. On the other hand, I do not think we should count on an initiative coming from above. King Mohammed VI has certainly many qualities but he certainly doesn’t have the democratic feel. With no political force capable of carrying these aspirations I’m afraid the status quo is to be maintained for many years to come.
The priority now, I think, is to stop the ongoing bleeding of the political culture. Without political culture, there is no freedom of the press. Let’s keep in mind that in the coming years, there will still be censorship and prohibitions to “regulate” the field of freedoms, and there will still be self-censorship to avoid arbitrary [attacks]. Let’s keep in mind that the democratic transition started more than ten years ago, will not come to a conclusion in a foreseeable horizon. There is now an imperative to rebuild a democratic culture with the awareness that this must be implemented with courage to not let the flame of freedom of expression be toppled, and with pedagogy to explain that in terms of freedom of expression much has not been achieved and that instead everything remains to be done.