How Morocco's free media is silenced

Rashi Khilnani
18 April 2006

We live in an age of communication, yet the voices that most need to be heard often aren't. Moderates are criticised for saying too little, and extremists for saying too much. But what everyone agrees on is that freedom of speech is vital.

In the wake of the Danish cartoon crisis, media freedom is particularly relevant to the Muslim world. Morocco, for one, is considered to be making landmark progress in civil liberties in a region where such rights have been virtually non-existent, yet free media has long been suffering under the current regime. King Mohammed VI, known – since the ending of a brief honeymoon period after he inherited the throne in July 1999 – for his intolerance of opposition news media, has developed a new strategy to silence it forever: economic ruin.

Also in openDemocracy on Morocco – political pressures, Islamist currents, migration, and the issue of Western Sahara:

Nelcya Delanoe, "Morocco: a journey in the space between monarchy and Islamism" (February 2003)

Nelcya Delanoe, "Morocco and Spain: united by tragedy?" (March 2004)

Ivan Briscoe, "Dreaming of Spain: migration and Morocco" (May 2004)

Saeed Taji Farouky, "Deserted in Western Sahara" (March 2006)

Le Journal Hebdomadaire, an independent political weekly celebrated for its investigations and long a thorn in the king's side, now finds itself under what can only be described as a government conspiracy to quash it. The publication, already targeted by protestors mobilised by the government, was fined 3.05 million dirham (€350,000) on 16 February 2006 for the "crime" of writing on sensitive topics relevant to Moroccans today.

Most media organisations in Morocco are either owned by the state or by those affiliated with it, and stay clear of the government stance on three taboo subjects: the monarchy, the conflict in Western Sahara and religion (especially political Islam). Le Journal published articles on two of these subjects – religion and Western Sahara – and, in turn, was attacked by the third, the monarchy.

With a history of throwing journalists in jail and even forbidding them from practising their profession, Mohammed VI has long used the courts as a weapon to express his distaste of independent media. When these tactics brought international attention and condemnation from such groups as Reporters sans frontières (RSF) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the government switched to a fresh strategy: financially suffocating the publications.

The huge fine imposed on Le Journal – upheld by the Rabat court of appeal on 18 April – was estimated by RSF as the equivalent of 138 years of minimum-wage work in the country. This is the largest-ever fine in a libel case in Morocco (and likely to bankrupt the magazine). Its pretext is the "defamation" of the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Centre (ESISC), a Belgian think-tank described by RSF as a "foreign-based fake NGO". ESISC had filed a complaint in response to a 3 December 2005 article in Le Journal that questioned the impartiality of the think-tank's pro-Moroccan report on the Western Sahara conflict, published in the previous month.

The trial was essentially a farce, according to Ali Amar, editor of Le Journal. "We were never given a right of appeal and the lawyer representing the think-tank is the head of a Moroccan political party. This is using nationalist propaganda to get a seat in the government."

RSF's Lynn Tehini, who was present at the tribunal, agrees. "It was clearly a political trial against Le Journal", she says. "The lawyers produced previous front pages from the magazine to give the idea that it was anti-Moroccan."

Things were already rocky for the publication. On 11 February, as part of a chronology of the cartoon crisis, Le Journal published an Agence France-Presse photograph of someone reading a French newspaper depicting cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. Understanding that this could cause controversy, the magazine took extra care to ink out the cartoon in the photograph, which was barely visible to begin with.

The magazine soon found its office targeted by protesters, many of whom, when approached, acknowledged that they had no idea what they were demonstrating against. Some of them told Le Journal reporters that that they been promised financial rewards for attending. The magazine has photographs of the vehicles that carried these protesters. The vehicles have government licence-plates and belong to the mayor's office. 2M and TVM, the only television stations in Morocco (both state-run), were present at the demonstration; each condemned Le Journal for publishing the cartoons.

When questioned on the matter, Nabil Benabdellah, Morocco's minister of communications, said the government had nothing to do with the protests and placed blame on the mayor, who has yet to receive any reprimand for the incident.

Joel Campagna of the CPJ expressed worry. "The Moroccan government took advantage of the political situation in Europe in the wake of the cartoon situation to harass these people", he said. "We are deeply concerned about the safety of our colleagues at Le Journal."

Concern may not be enough to save Le Journal, which is experiencing severe economic difficulties. In addition to the crippling fine, the advertising that normally keeps the magazine afloat is running low in the wake of its recent troubles. While the government sector clearly won't financially support a publication it intends to shut down, multinational corporations have started to shift away from it as well, as their business depends on good relations with the palace.

"I don't know if we will be able to publish anymore", said Amar. "The future is uncertain."

And the same could be said for press freedom in Morocco.

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