In the realm of citizen expression, there are really only two choices. Either it is considered an essential right, or it isn’t. And in recent years, Morocco has made the choice to permit it, rather decisively it seems, compared to many other states in the Arab world. Journalist-publishers such as Aboubakr Jamaï, Ahmed Reza Benchemsi, and Rachid Nini have become national figures by enlarging the boundaries of public expression. Internet clubs known as “cybers” proliferate in even the poorest urban districts and the most remote towns. More and more young people have computers at home. Sites such as YouTube and Facebook are uncensored, and have become a focus for Internet activism, such as a recent Facebook page criticizing the nepotism of Prime Minister Abbas al-Fassi and his family (though it was ultimately banned by Facebook itself). Moroccans have access to the world’s TV channels through satellite, and the world’s cinema through a thriving bootleg market. No doubt the Moroccan state understands that to compete in the global economy, it needs a better connected and informed citizenry. Regardless of the reasons, the decision has been made, and it’s too late to turn back.
Despite this undeniable progress, which is increasingly taken for granted by Moroccan youth, there have been a number of bumps in the road. 2009 saw several cases in which journalists, bloggers, and citizen activists were threatened, fined, or even thrown in prison by the more authoritarian elements of the state. In many cases, after the predictable outcry, the state relented, issuing pardons, shortening sentences, or letting the case die a quiet death. In other instances, however, when the state felt its fundamental interests were at stake, it stood its ground regardless of how it would look. The territorial unity of Morocco including the southern provinces is an obvious sore point. What this tells me is that in the current environment, which is in flux from an authoritarian state to something much more tolerant and open, neither the state nor its citizens are entirely sure where the new boundaries lie. At times, citizen activists may think they have freedoms that the state isn’t yet willing to give. Just as often, it seems, elements of the state with an obsolete mindset respond to citizen expression with a heavy hand, and the ensuing international embarrassment means their actions have to be walked back. The general trend is toward the establishment of public expression as a basic right, within certain limits, but the progress being made is in fits and starts.
Given this, the role of citizen media is to test those limits. This may not be deliberate, as in the case of Fouad Mourtada, who surely had no idea that he would be picked up off the street by the police, then sentenced to prison, for posting a spoof page of Prince Moulay Rachid on Facebook. Yet it is inevitable, because even in the freest of societies there are controversial forms of expression, and practical limits to free speech. In Morocco, even today the state gives greater importance to social stability than to an absolute right of expression, as seen in the hasty expulsion of numerous Christian evangelists, justified as necessary to protect the public order due to the outrage their activities might have stirred up. In the U.S. the right to proselytize for any faith is seen as an absolute right, but not in Morocco. Another example is the arrest of a blogger and Internet club owner last year for the spreading of “false information,” namely images of police using force at a student demonstration, and a communique protesting the incident. Both received prison sentences, and while the blogger was released early, the cyber club owner is still in jail. The state’s harsh reaction in this case was perhaps colored by the fact that the incident occurred in the southern Sahara region, where the state is particularly sensitive to outbreaks of popular opposition.
My point is that any state will make practical judgments about how much freedom to permit, and enshrine them in law. However, in Morocco those limits are not so well defined. On the one hand, the king is famous for saying that anything is open to discussion, outside the monarchy itself and his family, although obviously he would like the debate to be constructive. On the other hand, the state still has reflexes towards public order that, to a Westerner like myself, look overly paranoid. This is changing as the police and courts are rejuvenated by a younger generation more in tune with the ethic of public service. It is changing too as the citizens themselves, part of a rapidly modernizing society in touch with the world, put into practice their right to critique the events of the day. I’ve lived on and off in Morocco since 2003, and in that short time, I’ve noticed that there is much less staring over one’s shoulder at corner cafés out of fear of who might overhear what is said. A culture of citizen expression is taking root, not just on the internet but in daily life. But there is more to be done, through judicial reform and consistent application of the law, to clarify both the right to expression and its limits. Morocco’s bloggers and internet activists deserve this protection. Meanwhile, whether they choose to be or not, they are the guinea pigs of democracy—the test case for what is permitted and what is not.