Morocco: A Dangerous Flu

It appears that not only the flu virus is getting the Moroccan authorities unnerved. Another virus has been upsetting them: Freedom of Expression.

By Y on Flickr

By Y on Flickr

At least five Moroccan independent journalists will appear before a judge later this month in Rabat, the Moroccan capital, after having published articles in their newspapers, Al-Jarida al-Oula, Al-Ayam and Al-Mishaal, in which they challenged the official announcement about King Mohammed VI's health. It all started when on August 26, the Royal Palace, in an unprecedented move, revealed that the monarch has contracted “a viral, benign disease” and needed convalescing for five days. The next day, the Moroccan press started commenting on the announcement, mostly praising the transparency of the palace, some (citing anonymous sources) associating the king's illness with the hypothetic “abuse of immunodepressants to treat asthma.” Bloggers soon joined the debate. After a while, a wave of rumors and gossip emerged, giving way to speculations and all kinds of interpretations. Then authorities started calling in and arresting journalists who were submitted to long hours of questioning on the sources of their information, with some interrogations lasting for more than 40 hours.

Most bloggers denounced the attacks on journalists which, according to the official news agency [Fr], were based on the Press Code used by the prosecutor to accuse journalists of “publication offense,” “libel,” “bad intentions” and of spreading “false information” and “untruthful facts.”

Solidarité Maroc, a citizen online platform campaigning for human rights in Morocco, publishes a letter [Fr] of solidarity with the journalists by veteran activist Khalid Jamai [Fr], who writes:

Ils ont des armes, des commissariats, des fallaka (forme de punition corporelle); mais nous avons les mots, ceux que l’histoire incruste dans la mémoire des temps futurs. Il faut dire que nous, nous sommes rentré dans l’ère de “Amoula nouba” (“A qui le tour”). [D]es dizaines de quotidiens et hebdomadaire eurent à subir les affres de la censure, des interdictions, des procès, des amendes faramineuses, uniques dans l’histoire de la presse.
Demain à qui le tour…
Pourtant : au début ce fut le mot. Le mot que l’on ne peut mettre derrière les barreaux, ni assassiner.

They have weapons, police stations, executioners, but we have words. Words that history implanted into the memory of the future. It must be said that we're back in the era of “Amoul Nooba” (“Who's Next”). Dozens of dailies and weeklies had to suffer the horrors of censorship, bans, lawsuits, fines that are unique in the history of the press. Tomorrow, who's next?
Yet: at the beginning was the word. The word that can not be put behind bars or be assassinated.

A Moroccan about the world around him blames the journalists and calls for more “journalistic maturity.” He writes:

We don’t need self-proclaimed serious political newspapers dedicating their front pages to speculate on the king’s every sneeze and cough and divert the public’s attention from grave issues such as the recent utter failures of Morocco’s craven and politically naïve diplomats in addressing the Western Sahara issue. We need an independent media that exercises not self-censorship, but good judgment and selflessness in the conduct of their duties; one that adheres not to Delphic influences, but to personal conscience and unwavering character. Freedom is a greater responsibility; Al-Jarida Al-Oula, Al-Ayam and Al-Michaal demonstrated in this particular case that they could not strap it on and take charge. Let’s hope this is nothing more than a snag.

It is not the first time this year that journalists have found themselves in the dock. Unlike previous affairs, Bluesman notices [Ar], this time around the accused may find themselves abandoned:

هذه القضية تختلف عن باقي القضايا والسبب أن الصحافيين المتابعين وجدوا أنفسهم بمفردهم في ساحة المعركة بعد ان تخلى عنهم زملاءهم الصحافيين في سابقة خطيرة تؤكد شيئا واحدا ان المخزن نجح في شيئين
الاول تخويف الجسم الصحفي
والثاني زرع الشقاق بين الصحفيين
It is different this time because indicted journalists found themselves alone in the battlefield, abandoned by their colleagues in a dangerous precedent that confirms that the government has succeeded in two things: intimidating the press and sowing dissension among journalists.

The debate over the issue took at times some unexpected turns. Kissing the hand of the monarch in Morocco is a centuries old custom which, although not compulsory, most Moroccans feel compelled to perform in order to show their allegiance to the king. Larbi, citing an editorial by journalist Rachid Nini who suggested the banning of the practice for prophylactic reasons, deplores [Fr] the fact that the custom was not being disfavored for the good reasons. He writes:

Ainsi donc il faut abolir le baise-main non pas parce qu’il représente une pratique venue d’un autre temps, non pas parce qu’il est humiliant pour la dignité humaine, non pas parce qu’il représente un étonnant contraste avec le Maroc moderne chanté à tout bout de champs. Non il faut l’abolir pour protéger le roi contre la saleté et les microbes que portent, forcément, ses sujets, leurs mains et leurs bouches.

So we must abolish hand-kissing, not because it represents a practice coming from another time, not because it is humiliating for human dignity, not because it represents an astonishing contrast with the modern Morocco sung at every turn. No, we're told it should be abolished in order to protect the king against dirt and germs carried, inevitably, by his subjects, their hands and mouths.

For an outsider, it is difficult to comprehend the Moroccan authorities’ repeated attitude towards the media unless it is put in the context of the Moroccan system of governance which places the king above the rest of the mortals. Jillian York, blogger, activist and fine connoisseur of Morocco, writing on KABOBfest, wonders sarcastically, but almost in disbelief, about what could the journalists have published so nasty as to prompt such reaction from the authorities. She writes:

So what could the false story have said? […] That he had cancer? That he was dying of lung disease? Alas, no. The journalists reported on the King’s alleged contraction of…the flu virus.


  • Connoisseur, eh? Hisham, you flatter me.

    Bluesman makes an excellent point – given the amount of debate I’ve witnessed – both privately and in the blogosphere – it seems that this particular instance of censorship is indeed sowing the seeds of dissension amongst the usual suspects. Well done, Moroccan government.

  • I say fine connoisseur! I recommend your book Jillian, “Morocco, Culture Smart: a quick guide to customs & etiquette,” for anyone who wants to know more about Morocco.

    Ya, it seems that a protest fatigue and a sweeping and contagious fear are winning over journalists and freedom activists. A triumph for the repressive policies of the regime I’m afraid.

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