By Laila Lalami, the author of “Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits,” a novel (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 03/02/07):
WHEN I went to visit my cousin in the capital, Rabat, in December, he was preparing for his pilgrimage to Mecca. He showed me the pamphlets he was reading to learn about the rituals and talked about how much he would miss his family while he was away.
As the afternoon wore on, the mood grew lighter, and he began to tell me jokes. “Did you hear the one about the Islamist whose wife has just delivered a daughter? He picks up his baby and says, ‘Come here, my little bomb.’ ” My cousin chuckled as he said this — and so did I. It was an otherwise unremarkable afternoon, during which we shared funny stories satirizing our society.
Yet two weeks ago, Driss Ksikes, the editor in chief of the weekly magazine Nichane, and Sanaa Al Aji, a journalist, were sentenced to three years’ probation and a fine of more than $9,300 each, while Nichane was banned from publishing for two months — all for printing this joke, along with several others, in a cover article titled “Jokes: How Moroccans Make Fun of Religion, Sex and Politics.”
The article, written by Ms. Al Aji, examined the role that jokes play in society and, quoting sociologists, stand-up comedians and intellectuals, concluded that “comedy is the most beautiful form of expression, inaccessible to censorship.” Several insets included jokes about God, the Prophet Muhammad and the king, Mohammed VI. The magazine remained on newsstands for a week without incident.
Some religious conservatives started a small campaign online and on satellite news channels, calling for Nichane to be punished, while others passionately defended the magazine and signed petitions of support. A few days later, Nichane was shut down and its journalists taken to court for printing material that was deemed “offensive to the Islamic religion.” As outrageous as the verdict was, it was light compared with what the state prosecutor was seeking: five years’ prison time and a ban from practicing journalism for 10 years.
While the Nichane case was unfolding, another news magazine found itself in trouble. On three occasions, court bailiffs visited the offices of Le Journal Hebdomadaire to demand payment of a fine of more than $350,000.
A Casablanca court had called for the magazine to pay this sum to Claude Moniquet, the director of a small institute called the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center. At issue was an article calling into question Mr. Moniquet’s impartiality in a report he conducted about Western Sahara. The report was favorable to Morocco’s position that this territory is part of its southern provinces.
In the United States, Morocco is often seen as a liberal country and a bulwark against Islamic extremism. Certainly, the reforms that have taken place over the last few years, particularly in terms of women’s rights, are steps in the right direction.
But while the court cases against independent news magazines like Nichane, Le Journal Hebdomadaire and several others are within the bounds of Moroccan law, they appear to single out the independent press, to the exclusion of more partisan publications. These cases highlight a particularly troubling pattern, in which the regime represses the progressive voices it claims to champion.
Meanwhile, newspapers like Attajdid, the mouthpiece for an Islamic party, go unmolested, probably because they are careful to confine their criticism to social issues and generally avoid two of the three infamous “red lines” — the king and Western Sahara — that limit press freedom in Morocco. When it comes to the third taboo, Islam, such publications often set the tone for public debate, as they did during the Danish cartoons controversy.
The government then tries to prove that it, too, can defend Islamic values; hence the case against Nichane for printing jokes deemed offensive to the religion. It is a high-stakes game between the religious right and the government, and it is unclear which will come out the winner.
In a sign of the times, Nichane has retreated. The magazine has already announced that it will not appeal the court’s decision, and it is likely that it will respect the “red lines” from now on. In contrast, Aboubakr Jamaï, Le Journal Hebdomadaire’s besieged editor, resigned from his post in order to save his magazine. Since any salary he makes in Morocco can legally be seized to pay his colossal fine, he argued, he has to leave the country and work elsewhere. Morocco cannot afford to lose his voice.
The Bush administration has time and again referred to Morocco as a moderate Arab state that deserves to receive millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money to encourage democratic reforms. American officials point to recent elections, changes in family law and a good growth rate as indicators of Morocco’s success. But they turn a blind eye to problems of press freedom. A democracy cannot be established unless independent journalists, whatever their political beliefs, are allowed to work and publish freely.
Without freedom of expression, Morocco’s reforms are merely a varnish. Underneath it lies the same old country.