Press Freedom in Morocco — Not Quite There Yet

Human Rights Watch has released a new report on press freedom in Morocco. The report — The Red Lines Stay Red: Morocco’s Reforms of its Speech Laws — offers guarded praise of Morocco’s recent reforms to its press code, but notes that there are still potential harsh penalties, including jail time, for violation of the penal code. The new press code has reduced penalties for crossing the country’s famous red lines — disparagement of Islam, the King, or the status of the Sahara — given news outlets greater due process before publications can be seized, and made it easier to present evidence for the defense in defamation trials. Prison time is eliminated for defamation of individuals or foreign diplomats. Certainly this is an improvement over the prior 2002 press law, but clearly it does not go far enough to provide truly free speech.

In addition, sometimes what the right hand giveth, the left hand taketh away, and without reform of the penal code, many harsh penalties limiting freedom of expression remain on the books. Human Rights Watch notes that

The penal code, by contrast, in addition to the new provisions imposing prison or a fine as punishment for “red line” offenses, maintains prison terms for a range of other speech offenses. Those include defaming state institutions, insulting public agents who are performing their duties, praising terrorism, inciting hatred or discrimination, and denigrating court decisions with the intent to undermine the authority or independence of the judiciary. Many of these offenses are defined broadly, increasing the risk that judges will use them to suppress speech.

Of course, the extent to which the Moroccan population is ready for free speech, as the relatively recent film Much Loved demonstrated, may be open to question. The government banned the highly controversial film portraying Marrakesh prostitutes as a danger to morals and a disgrace to the country’s image, and the lead actress, Loubna Abidar, fled to France after being assaulted. (The fact that she went to France probably did not endear her further to the Moroccan population.) It is perhaps no surprise that many Moroccans were incensed by the film, but after all, the point of free speech is to tolerate all speech — including unpopular or insulting speech.

Americans preen themselves on the protection of speech afforded by the First Amendment to the Constitution and like to think that they are the world’s free speech champions: not so, Reporters Without Borders ranks us 43rd out of 180. (Sweden is first; North Korea is last.) Morocco is 133, not bad in the Arab World, but behind Mauritania (55) and Tunisia (97) and some of the smaller Gulf States, such as the Emirates (119).

Morocco is a long way from the Years of Lead, but she still has a long way to go.