“Morocco is a state which operates far from optimal because it has too little relay. Most of the public space is squatted by the clamor of a great orchestra of nihilist pest, whose members compete in nuisance, insensitive to the terrible damage they have inflicted on this nation.” Khalid Naciri, Minister of Information and spokesperson for the Moroccan government in Le Matin (state run), 5 August 2009.
My blogging activities have been very rare lately, mostly for professional reasons but also because I have been busy twitting and Facebooking for and about freedom of speech in Morocco. So I found it convenient -although this issue is no longer making the headlines- to just copy and paste the text bellow of an interview I had by e-mail with writer, activist, blogger and friend Jillian C. York to share it with anyone dropping over in case they were wondering: Nine Percent what?
1. Why do you think the government is so eager to clamp down on the two publications, particularly in light of the fact that 91% of those polled actually support the monarchy?
The government’s reaction might understandably be seen as odd for an outsider: why on earth would any government bring itself opposition and ban the results of a poll that shows figures of overwhelming endorsement of the regime? But to be rightly understood, the attitude of the Moroccan government should always be seen in the scope of the country’s history and of the kind of special relationship that the monarchy wants to perpetuate with the Moroccan people: an adult-to-child kind of relationship. In other words, the common belief inside the circles of power, amongst members of the establishment, the wealthy landowners, the businessmen close to the power, the security bosses, the notables who’s power and privileges depend upon a continuation of the status quo, and within the royal family itself is that any opening of the public space which might empower the masses might also signal a process of accountability that may end up dismantling this whole system of nepotism that the Moroccan oligarchy counts on.
Having all this in mind, one can easily understand the mind process behind these repeated attacks against freedom of expression, driven by the principle that ordinary Moroccans should always be remembered that the Makhzen (or the Moroccan establishment as described above) should not and can not be subject to any judgement, criticism, assessment or study regardless of their outcome. “Sacred Institution” is the phrase often used to hide the more down-to-earth motives exposed earlier.
2. Do you see Moroccan press laws (and their application) as regressing?
The press is relatively free to address many subjects in comparison with other neighboring countries, but the Press Law explicitly restricts the scope of expression to the confines of so-called red lines providing for imprisonment in such vague terms that it exposes journalists to liability from a judiciary that is far from being independent anyway. All in all, the media has to deal with the inextricable dilemma of trying to comment public and political life in the country without being allowed to have an objective analysis of the centers of power, which lie mainly between the king’s hands, who’s hegemony covers, de facto, the executive, the judiciary, the military and religion. From this perspective, yes, the Press Law is regressive.
3. Although the Interior Ministry has spoken, why do you think there’s silence from the royal family on this issue?
I think it has to do with at least three aspects of the monarchy and the existing customs. One: Mohammed VI, contrary to his father has quite a low key approach to politics. Since his accession to the throne he has surrounded himself with an army of spokespersons, a novelty for the monarchy, serving as a buffer between the public and the palace, and has noticeably avoided contacts with the media. Indeed he has never given a press conference and his rare interviews were mainly conducted in a written rather than spoken form. So this aspect may explain in part, the apparent detachment of the king even in matters that might concern him in person, like in the issue at hand. Two: the very nature of the Moroccan system, where the monarch rules by “divine right,” doesn’t allow for the “commander of the believers,” who’s by essence not only above the law but also beyond the reach of common mortals, to descend into the public debate and enter controversial debate with those who are supposed to be his subjects. Three: Often in matters of lése-majestè, the king has usually had a distant approach: a mixture of both condescendent and indifferent postures. This allows him retrospectively the room for -at his discretion- granting pardons to whom he chooses, hence having the possibility to claim his gratuitousness and charity which often plays well with both domestic and foreign constituencies.
4. Do you foresee any legal repercussions on Ahmed Benchemsi?
The authorities have long adopted a cynical modus operandi as far as punishing discourteous journalists is concerned. Each time there is enough mobilization of the civil society and/or the international opinion against their actions, they systematically avoid jail sentences and resort to more subtle ways to pressure “offending” journalists. They use a Press Code that is specifically designed to impose colossal fines then wait for the media attention to fade away to launch a sophisticated campaign of economic boycott and demonization. Benchemssi has been for some time now on the Makhzen’s radar screen and fortunately for him and for freedom of the Press in Morocco, he has been allowed so far to keep on working and publishing his magazines. An opportunity that some of his colleagues, especially in the printed Arabic speaking press, have not been granted. Thanks to the support Benchemssi and his publications have inside and outside of the country, and hopefully with the campaign of support that took upon itself to denounce the seizure of the magazines and the censorship of the results of the poll, he might be allowed to go back publishing Nichane and TelQuel. He probably will be sentenced to pay a huge fine and then the Makhzen will concentrate on the business of bringing him and the people who work with him on their knees.
That’s unfortunately how it works in Morocco.
5. What effect do you think the Twitter and Facebook campaigns will have?
To be honest, I’m not sure whether this campaign which started quite spontaneously, will have any practical, short-term effect on the issue at hand. And I believe that it will take more that an online campaign to change the rigid and quite regressive mindset that is at the core of the main problems that hold Morocco behind. Of course the campaign and those who participated in it can not be scientifically considered representative of Moroccans as a whole, but what I’m quite sure about is that the campaign and the energetic response to it, shows without the shred of a doubt that whilst the majority supports and adheres to the royal family and the person of the monarch, they are eager to see the existing system evolve so that they at last can be considered as adults, capable of expressing themselves responsibly without having an intrusive government lecturing them on what they should watch, read, say or hear.