Morocco and Press Freedom: A Complicated Relationship: A Visibly Corrupt Government but a Wide Space for Journalists to Denounce It, Relentlessly Harassed Newspapers but Still a Vivid, Daring and Popular Press- Welcome to the Kingdom of Paradox

By Benchemsi, Ahmed | Nieman Reports, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Morocco and Press Freedom: A Complicated Relationship: A Visibly Corrupt Government but a Wide Space for Journalists to Denounce It, Relentlessly Harassed Newspapers but Still a Vivid, Daring and Popular Press- Welcome to the Kingdom of Paradox


Benchemsi, Ahmed, Nieman Reports


In December 20061 was invited to a regional media conference in Beirut, Lebanon. Each Arab country was represented by an independent journalist who was to sketch the situation in his country. The roundup started with a Yemeni editor and continued westbound. Being from Morocco, I was the last one on the program so I sat down and listened. A string of complaints ensued as my colleagues told what they were facing on a daily basis in their respective countries: heavy government censorship, physical intimidation, imprisonments and, in some cases, torture. A publisher from Iraq even said: "Every evening I thank God for making it back home alive." When finally it was my turn, I took the microphone and addressed my colleagues: "I do commend your courage for enduring such terrible hardship. As for me, I have some censorship issues but honestly ... compared with you guys, I live in Disneyland."

How could I not say that? At that time I had already been sued a couple of times by Morocco's government for being too outspoken. But on the other hand, TelQuel and Nishan, the two newsmagazines for which I was publisher and editor, featured about every week a daring, taboo-tackling cover story: "The Salary of the King," "Sex and the Medina," "Let's Re-Read the Qur'an," "Morocco: #1 Marijuana Producer in the World," and many more like that. [See box on page 48.] Let's be fair and square: had my government been as repressive as its Arab counterparts, none of these issues would have ever hit the stands. So yes, in comparative terms, freedom of speech in Morocco was something of a Disney-style fairy tale.

"Once upon a time" here applies to the middle of the 1990's when a new generation of Moroccan journalists emerged. I was one of them. In our 20's and just graduated from college, we awoke to political life and critical writing as King Hassan II was aging and his stranglehold on freedoms was slightly fading. But our true rise started after he passed away in 1999. Newly crowned King Mohammed VI, 36, was barely older than us, and he was said to be a genuine liberal. In the early 2000's, while our Arab colleagues were struggling for survival amidst ruthless dictatorships, we were eager to take part in our country's democratic renaissance.

The "nouvelle presse," as our recently created papers and magazines were dubbed, rose swiftly, eclipsing within months the traditional press, which was mainly dominated by the papers of political parties. Unlike the party journalists, ossified by decades of self-censorship and political calculations, we were young, independent, uninhibited and craving freedom. We quickly waded into hot territories, thoroughly exposing King Hassan's "years of lead," past secret police abuses and the corruption of top officials. As our sales boomed, the new king and his advisers took advantage of our audacity, waving it in the face of Western observers as early proof of Morocco's democratization.

But the honeymoon didn't last long. Having exhausted the vein of the old regime's flaws, we started investigating those of the new one. That is when the trouble began. As we tackled topics like corruption in the military and the inner conflicts of the royal family, the palace grew more and more irritated. It started with copies being seized. Then some papers were banned by government decree before being allowed to come back under different names. After that, we entered a period of politically motivated libel trials--all of which were outrageously biased in favor of the plaintiffs. Every now and then independent journalists were interrogated for days in police stations, without necessarily being charged with any offense--just for the sake of intimidation.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

However, whenever we were attacked we managed to attract worldwide media coverage and determined support from global watchdogs. Somehow it prompted the palace to back off, since further tarnishing the kingdom's liberal reputation would have come at a diplomatic cost. …

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Morocco and Press Freedom: A Complicated Relationship: A Visibly Corrupt Government but a Wide Space for Journalists to Denounce It, Relentlessly Harassed Newspapers but Still a Vivid, Daring and Popular Press- Welcome to the Kingdom of Paradox
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