Before I lived in Morocco, I worked at a college where free speech was touted at every turn by its president, a former journalist. That is until someone said something racist, homophobic or anti-Semitic. Then, the entire campus would get an email about how free speech is encouraged yet certain types of speech were intolerable in our community. Well, then, I would venture that free speech isn’t truly free with such restrictions now is it? I often cringed at receiving the emails because I thought if perhaps we didn’t allow such freedom of speech in the first place we wouldn’t need scathing reminders on an all too regular basis that scraping the N-word on an African American student’s car or writing homophobic statements on a gay student’s dorm door were not acceptable forms of free speech. Everyone wants total freedom of speech until their ethnicity, religious, political, and moral views are under attack. My experiences working here shaped my view on freedom of speech with limitations, at least limits on speech in public forums.
As an American Muslim, the fact of the matter is I don’t mind certain forms of censorship, and in fact my religion mandates it. There are many Hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him) which remind us about proper manners in speech, speaking badly about others, and being too concerned with matters that are of no relevance to our life. Additionally, another Hadith states harming others in any manner is prohibited for Muslims, which would encompass harming by speech.
On the authority of Abu Hurairah, radiyallahu ‘anhu, who said: “The Messenger of Allah, sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam, said: ‘Part of the perfection of someone’s Islam is his leaving alone that which does not concern him.'”
Abu Hurairah, radiyallahu ‘anhu, reported that the Messenger of Allah, sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam, said: “Let whosoever believes in Allah and in the Last Day either speak good or be silent. Let whosoever believes in Allah and in the Last Day honour his neighbour. Let whosoever believes in Allah and in the Last Day honour his guest.”
It was related on the authority of Abu Sa’id Sa’d bin Malik bin Sinan al-Khudri, radiyallahu ‘anhu, that the Messenger of Allah, sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam, said: “There should be neither harming nor reciprocating harm.”
When we don’t have something good to say it shouldn’t be said at all, and backbiting is one of the most hated sins by Allah. Gossiping and hearsay about family, neighbors, leaders, and members of the community serve no purpose in uniting people and striving for the common good. Since I’ve been living in Morocco, I actually appreciate that curse words, alcohol, and any scenes on television consisting of more than a hug are edited out. I prefer not to hear nasty speculation about any scandalous affairs of government officials on the nightly news, because most of those stories are hardly ever based on true facts. Once, someone told me that an Arabic translation of a curse phrase on an English television program was translated as “how is that relevant?” And, actually, I think that’s a good question for the foundation of my belief in this issue of free press in Morocco.
A lot of headlines of late lead with “Free Press” in the title, but the first mistake here is thinking that there is such a thing as free press in Morocco. The constitution of Morocco does not specifically guarantee freedom of the press. In fact, regarding free speech, the constitution states in Article 9:
The constitution shall guarantee all citizens the following:
a. freedom of movement through, and of settlement in, all parts of the Kingdom;
b. freedom of opinion, of expression in all its forms, and of public gathering;
c. freedom of association, and the freedom to belong to any union or political group of their choice.
No limitation, except by law, shall be put to the exercise of such freedoms.
And the law imposes plenty of limitations on free speech and free press. The Moroccan Press Code has a host of restrictions and guidelines on how independent non-governmental, and foreign press entities may operate. There are very clear guidelines on what subjects are off limits, and what fines and sentences result in a violation of the law. Since something is only truly free when it is without restriction, a better way of looking at it would be to say that independent press organizations are allowed to exist in the country, not necessarily free to write whatever they want.
In fact, many laws of the Press Code are also laws of the citizens as whole when it comes to speaking about the Royal family, Islam and the Western Sahara. An individual walking down the street speaking ill of a member of the Royal family is subject to arrest as much as someone writing the same exact thing and publishing it in a newspaper (though the actual punishment may differ).
Furthermore, the Code explicitly states “accurate and honest” reporting is a condition of operating a press organization. Speculating on the health of the King is not honest or accurate—it is merely guessing at a current state of health which may or may not be true based on weak evidence and sources. I understand people feel they have the right to know everything that is going on in the world. They want to debate every action, to criticize every movement, and have a say in something that they often cannot change. Which brings me back to my question of “how is that relevant?”
The news should be about reporting facts and providing people with information they need to know because it will affect their lives in a personal way whether it be their health, finances, or personal well-being. Instead, what the press is really fighting for- the ability or right to report on the health of the monarch, to publish cutesy caricatures of another member of the royal family, or to report some unimportant statistics of approval ratings? How is that relevant?
When the press is allowed complete freedom, fact and honesty often go out the window so that sensationalism and sales can prevail. Stories are slanted to shape a particular point of view or to skew an audience’s opinion around the story. Truth in reporting has become a value in word, but not in action. Personal opinion is interjected, speculation is stated as fact, and it’s the twist not the facts that often get people talking. Facts are not cross checked, and someone’s opinion is often given as evidence so that people are more often talking about news based on rumor and speculation rather than concrete evidence and given knowledge.
These things only stand to create more distrust between the press, the government, and the citizens. When an employee wants a promotion and raise in pay, do they get it by showing up late and producing poor quality work or by being a reliable employee, building trust with their superiors and producing the best results? Obviously, they have to build trust with the company in order to advance and gain more benefits. Applying this to the case of the press gaining more freedom, they should report relevant, fair, and factual stories so that both the government and the people win their trust. Perhaps then, restrictions will be lifted because the press would be considered a reliable and fair source on what they report and they way they report it.
The press needs to build trust in order for limitations and restrictions to be lifted. In doing so, following the current Press Code Law is essential in building trust and showing good faith. Remember, it hasn’t been very long since an independent press was even allowed to exist, so while much of the world is moving fast around Morocco, real progression takes time. Trying to break the mold by breaking the law in printing stories that are clearly against the law and Press Code will not accomplish the task of a freer press. Writing the truth, reporting what’s relevant, and showing reliability are the more likely route to change and a more open society.