It was a hectic summer for Morocco’s independent press. In late July 2009, a court ruling imposed heavy fines on three independent dailies for defaming a foreign leader, Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi. A day after the ruling, in an unprecedented show of solidarity, a majority of the country’s newspapers published blank editorials. In August, the government seized an issue of an independent weekly, Nichane, for publishing an opinion poll on the approval ratings of King Mohamed VI as he was celebrating his tenth anniversary on the throne. And there was the public airing of journalistic dirty laundry, with Le Journal’s former reporters and editors publicly trading barbs and recriminations over their relationships with the royal family (including alleged pay-offs to some journalists from the king’s cousin, Prince Moulay Hicham).
In the last decade, a feisty Moroccan press with a new breed of independent journalists has grown in influence and popularity despite mixed signals from the palace. It has become more critical, broaching topics that were deemed off-limits to Moroccan journalists until a few years ago. Covering topics such as the king’s health, the royal family’s private affairs, and victims of political oppression would have been inconceivable during his father’s reign.
The earliest manifestation of a positive shift in the fortunes of the Moroccan press became apparent after a new press code was passed in 2002, guaranteeing a modicum of freedom. The final legislation, however, was riddled with legal loopholes and purposefully vague language, allowing libel and defamation laws to be used to constrain and silence critical and independent publications. Reporters from the weekly al-Michaal and the daily al-Jarida al-Oula were dragged to court and charged with “intentionally publishing false information” after their articles questioned the Royal Palace’s official release on the king’s health in September 2009. The populist al-Massae has yet to pay a fine of six million dirhams (US $790,000) the courts imposed in a defamation case. A cartoon of a royal family wedding in Akhbar al-Youm drew government charges of “insulting the royal family.” The government has indefinitely shut down the newspaper in blatant contravention of the current press law’s Article 77, which authorizes the government only to ban a single issue of a periodical deemed disrespectful to the royal family.
In view of these cases, calls for reforming existing press laws have grown stronger, garnering support from local journalists as well as regional and international press organizations. The national press union, le Syndicat National de la Presse Marocaine (SNPM), has been at the forefront of those demanding reform, calling for decriminalizing press offences, making fines proportional to alleged damages, and ensuring journalists’ free access to information. Other press watchdogs have reiterated similar demands, ranking Morocco among those whose “press laws hark back to another era,” wavering between repression and liberalization, as Reporters Without Borders observed in 2008.
While the government has long promised to address these legal loopholes, a new press law seems to have stalled, endangering already fragile independent publications. In dragging its feet, the government has unexpectedly received help from the independent press’s own feuds and frictions. Enacting a new press code requires a press corps united around a reform agenda. But in the current crop of independent journalists, in-fighting and petty feuds have recently escalated. Should legitimate editorial differences continue to be used to settle personal scores, this would spell the demise of reform efforts, if not the independent press as a whole. More ominously, personal feuds and frictions are discrediting the rest of the profession in the court of Moroccan public opinion.
Aziz Douai is assistant professor of communication at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. His article on Arab media ethics will appear in the forthcoming issue of the Journal of International Communication.