Thursday, December 21, 2006

Morocco's top ten jokes backfires.

A very well coordinated campaign by conservative forces has been pushing for the banning of the satirical journal Nichane. Disturbingly a number of journalist "fellow-travellers" decided to abandon ethics and principals and join the campaign. Freedom of the press should be a non-negotiable, but for some it appears that at the first sniff of trouble they opted for self-interest. Thus they fueled the traditionalist camp and gave no support to the government who found itself in a difficult position caught between the highly popular reforms on one hand and the rising tide of political Islam on the other.

It didn't take long for the government to go into damage control and move on the editors of Nichane. The satire magazine has now been banned for the article listing the top jokes that Moroccans laugh at. They are, as anywhere, jokes about religion, sex and politics. To an outsider this is going to appear like a massive over-reaction, but within Morocco, although a majority of people would have heard, told or laughed at the jokes, most would agree that publishing was going a bit far.

According to the Casablanca state prosecutor, the Nichane article represented an attack on Islam and went "against morals and customs". The prosecutor ordered an investigation into the article and began legal action against the editor Driss Ksikes and reporter Sanaa Al Aji for “damaging the Islamic religion and publishing of writings contrary to morals and ethics.” Sensing the mood, Prime Minister Driss Jettou was quick to move and issued an injunction banning the magazine from being distributed, sold or displayed on the streets.

Morocco has carried out a programme of liberal reforms since King Mohammed VI came to power in 1999, and foreign observers say its press is now one of the freest in the Arab world. Yet there are still limits and they have been regularly tested by Tel Quel and Nichane with articles that criticise government policy and attack corruption and nepotism.

This time the government's actions have caught the attention of the international watchdog Reporters Without Borders who were quick to point out that the Nichane ban was politically motivated. Hopefully the Moroccan media will find the backbone to stand up for the magazine and the principals of freedom of speech. "These measures ... arise from an electoral calculation ahead of polls which could be marked by a strong rise by the Islamist movement," the group said in a statement.

On Wednesday, Communications Minister Nabil Benabdallah said a new press code planned for next year would eliminate most prison sentences against journalists. Critics, however, say liberalisation has stalled in recent years on fears it could threaten the Alawite dynasty that has ruled the territory for almost five centuries.

Moroccan Islamic scholars, were quick to join the chorus of disapproval. The Higher Council of Ulemas and Rabita Mohammadia of Ulemas, in two separate press releases, backed up the government's decision to ban the magazine, deeming it a "sincere expression of the nation's conscience and feelings".

"The article crosses the red lines as it insults the sacred person of the Prophet and His Companions," claimed the Higher Council of Ulemas, adding that it harms the nation's sacred values and symbols as well.

Rabita Mohammadia of ulemas deemed this article "an odious act", noting that the decision to ban the weekly comes "at the appropriate time. Nobody can accept harming a whole nation and allow its beliefs to be subjected to irony under the cover of freedom of expression."

Speaking at a press briefing following the weekly cabinet meeting, government spokesman Nabil Benabdellah said the weekly will remain banned till a verdict in the trial against the weekly director and journalist.

The government deems that these writings "harm the fundamental values of the Moroccan society, all the more reason that these values constitute the basis of cohesion between the various components of the Moroccan people," the minister said.

The case will be examined before the court on January 8.

Banning a magazine over jokes that the population are laughing at may prove to be no laughing matter. See our previous story: No Laughing matter and our UPDATE ON THE TRIAL

In an ironical footnote, the issue in question is off the streets but has become a collectors' item with people offering a good prices for a copy. Only time will tell who has the last laugh.

Our latest story: Our readers reaction and world opinion.



Maryam in Marrakesh said...

Very disappointing. And so unnecessary. There is room on the marketplace for Nichane. When will the State realize that such crackdowns always backfire, helping foster international opinion that the Moroccan State is repressive and tyranical.

Anonymous said...

I am a newspaper columnist in Chicago curious as to the nature of the Nichane jokes. Could someone send me an example? My goal is to illustrate the nature of the jokes, not to offend anyone. My e-mail is Thank you very much.

Neil Steinberg

Anonymous said...

Hi Neil, You will find the jokes here. JOKES