April 23, 2006
Morocco & Media bis: Activist Pimping & Sober Reality (Updated)
Our dear friend, Bou Ardvrk once again (as a media specialist would) has another comment on the Moroccan media that has managed to annoy me somewhat, although it raises an important problem
The annoyance stems from his using as center piece some ill-written exagerated activist squeeling from "Open Democracy" - which appears to be some naive bit of internet activist pseudo-journalism site for those who believe in democracy. I suppose I also believe in democracy, although I do not particularly believe in internet activism or democracy activists.
However, the underlying issue, the Moroccan government's apparent new tactic in using court cases to slap down media that have gotten "out of line" and the highly peculiar circumstances of the case in question, Le Journal Hebdomidaire, a weekly of relatively recent vintage with quite a lot of spunk - although also with somewhat questionable journalistic standards. But then one could write that about any media organ in Morocco come to think of it.
Now, before continuing, some disclaimers. I am not media critic and when I think of media it is usually for business, either for my purposes or as a business. That being said, one appreciates even in this sort of blindered context, a nice feisty media - the comparison is simple for me - in Morocco I can read the business press and I actually expect and am rewarded with real information, not merely regurgitated press releases (although there is that as well). I go to the Gulf and every fucking Khaliji shite paper is nothing more than a glossy venue for press releases and adverts placed for corrupt reasons. (Well maybe not every paper) Except Leb land, I pretty much feel the same way about the media market in every Arab country - one reads it for the political tea leaves, but not for information as such. Morocco actually has press one reads to actually get information. Imperfect, to be sure, but working rather like one expects a press to work. My judgements, then, on the media in Morocco, Gulf, Leb Land, etc. are biased to the practical and less concerned with, well, the Holy Grail of Democracy than the more primordial function of information clearing (setting the stage certainly for some necessary conditions I may add for developing nice things like democracy, but better, transparency and accountability).
This bit of framing aside, let me take a moment to take the AP report published in The Washington Post here (and quoted by our estimable Bou Ardvrk) as a basis for laying the ground work and explaining why I don't find the Open Democracy rubbish even quotable.
Effectively the story revolves around a libel case brought by a Belgian think tank (automatically the Belgianness somehow brings it into disrepute, oddly enough - anyone whose had the bad chance of spending time with Belgians should understand), the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center or rather its head, against the paper, for libel. The libel case was all about LJH backhandedly accusing the center of being in the pay of the Moroccan government, after it published a study more or less (as the descriptions go, I have not seen the actual paper) taking the Moroccan government's point of view on the Western Sahara.
Now, before one touches on the detials a bit of side commentary is in order.
First, one must confess that the fact the Belgian actually bothered to sue for libel implies two things, not mutually exclusive. One, indeed they took money from Morocco, two, the head is a typical Belgian ass.
A proper European think tank, accused by some stupid little shitty second rate Moroccan weekly that tends to run overheated speculation about Scientologist-CIA connexions with 70s plots against the Royal family of some trivial corruption in siding with Morocco on the question of the stony wasteland that is the Western Sahara, would have simply written a nasty letter to the publisher accusing him of poor standards, abuse of the Language of Moliere, and smelliness. In short, hardly worth suing about, more along the lines of something you mock.
However, they sued. Or he sued, the head of this funny Belgian entity (which may in fact be legit and in fact merely be run by a typically insufferable Belgian git of an insufferable asshole - I confess I don't like Belgium I may add).
To quote the article:
A lower court ruled in February that Le Journal Hebdomadaire must pay damages of 3 million dirhams, or about $327,000, to the head of the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center, a think tank in Brussels, Belgium. The court also fined the magazine $10,900.This was upheld by an appeals court on Tuesday.
That's quite a fine. All this for this:
The head of the think tank, Claude Moniquet, argued the magazine defamed him and the institute by running an article that he said questioned the integrity of a study done by the center.
Its study said the United Nations should drop efforts to hold an independence referendum for Western Sahara, a mineral-rich former Spanish territory seized by Morocco in 1974. The rebel Polisario Front waged a long desert war seeking to end the annexation and gain independence.
The magazine said in December that the findings were so similar to official Morocco's views that it raised questions about whether the study was "guided by" and possibly paid for by the Moroccan government.
Again, hardly something to sue over.
The article characterises things as folllows
The punitive damages against the weekly's publisher, Aboubakr Jamai, and writer Fahd Iraqi were the biggest ever given journalists in Morocco, leading rights groups to question whether the courts were trying to curb media from taking independent stances on important matters.
"With this disproportionate sentence ... the judges are clearly trying to silence the journal," Reporters Without Borders said in a statement.
The group said the magazine wasn't allowed to mount a proper defense. During the trial, the judge barred Le Journal Hebdomadaire from introducing an expert witness, prompting the magazine to withdraw from the proceedings in protest.
One has to agree, punishment it is, the fine. Silencing punishment.
I am not sure if the journal was not actually allowed to mount a proper defence, I should add, but the Moroccan judges certainly took a pro prosecution stance.
But they always do, one of the great defects of the Moroccan courts are the bizarre mindset of a good set of the judiciary - who should frankly be fired, the lot of them.
But mentalities change slowly.
The AP arty goes on to note:
The case was the latest example of often prickly relations between Morocco's journalists and officialdom that have arisen as the press has grown more vibrant since the ascent of King Mohammed VI to the throne in 1999.
At least a half dozen media outlets have reputations for their independence and many devote extensive coverage to corruption and other hot political topics.
Moroccan authorities have responded with criminal prosecutions, censorship and harassment to try to rein in the media. Officials also have the power to suspend or revoke licenses for publications deemed a threat to public order.
"I don't think they're happy with us existing at all," Jamai, the fined publisher, told The Associated Press.
Two main items here.
First, it is rather expected that a transition from a lapdog press that said nothing to a fairly free wheeling press will generate tension, above all when this emerges in merely 5-6 years and frankly the journo standards while not terrible do leave something to be desired.
Regardless, there is still a lively printed press - and with the upcoming liberalisation of broadcast, one might even gamble on the emergence of some interesting radio. Even better, despite a shakey macro economy, the advertising culture and standards are pretty well developed, indeed among the freest and most interesting in the region, well up to international standards (and rather more creative, in my opinion, than the Lebs).
Regardless, the lawsuit and judgement are not good developments and deserve wider attention (although I should think shaming the Belgian would be a good starting point).
Now, given these facts, the shite that the idiot activist site published squeeling overheatedly, "How Morocco's free media is silenced"
I have no idea who Rashi Khilnani is, but I can say the writer is your typical activist.
We start with the trite introduction:
We live in an age of communication, yet the voices that most need to be heard often aren't.
Beautiful in its triteness and activistism. I bet uni writing classes polished it up real nice.
But let me not mock style, and get to substance:
Morocco, for one, is considered to be making landmark progress in civil liberties in a region where such rights have been virtually non-existent, yet free media has long been suffering under the current regime. King Mohammed VI, known – since the ending of a brief honeymoon period after he inherited the throne in July 1999 – for his intolerance of opposition news media, has developed a new strategy to silence it forever: economic ruin.
It is hard to characterise how annoyingly overdone this statement is.
M6 effectively kicked off the liberalisation - and has more or less permitted it to roll on with a few notable, sensitive exceptions. Reading this paragraph, however, you'd think the secret police were out rounding people up again (never mind the queer statement about a brief honeymoon. I would hazard the opinion that 7 years into his reign the fairly recent emergence of grumbling is a bloody long ass honeymoon by any reasonable standard. Unless you're a young activist looking to blow up everything into crisis.
More overheated rhetoric follows
Le Journal Hebdomadaire, an independent political weekly celebrated for its investigations and long a thorn in the king's side, now finds itself under what can only be described as a government conspiracy to quash it. The publication, already targeted by protestors mobilised by the government, was fined 3.05 million dirham (€350,000) on 16 February 2006 for the "crime" of writing on sensitive topics relevant to Moroccans today.
The crime was libel, a perfectly reasonable accusation, brought by an outsider, even if the trial was manipulated. This was a fair bit more regular than the shenanigans that goes on in Syria and Egypt, to say the least.
Now, the next part, in my opinion borders on the unfactual:
Most media organisations in Morocco are either owned by the state or by those affiliated with it, and stay clear of the government stance on three taboo subjects: the monarchy, the conflict in Western Sahara and religion (especially political Islam). Le Journal published articles on two of these subjects – religion and Western Sahara – and, in turn, was attacked by the third, the monarchy.
Most media organisations? Owned by the State?
Well, one has to do some very queer math to assert that. Affiliated with of course is a nice weasel term that is hard to pin down.
I have not at hand a good list of the media, but I feel confident in stating that the most read press isn't in state hands. I will leave aside the "affiliated" given it's weasely and undefinted nature.
The idea, further, that touching on religon and Islamism is a taboo subject is just nutty. Only supporting the Salafis is largely taboo, although the PJD's pet paper gets away with it.
Monarchy is indeed taboo, but frankly this is secondary in importance. One can fairly freely take whacks at the Government the King appoints, which is a fairly good first step.
Western Sahara - there one has a point.
Sadly, Moroccan attitudes and discourse on the Western Sahara remian stuck in the 1970s. The time warp is queer and actually shocking to witness. And utterly unnecessary.
With a history of throwing journalists in jail and even forbidding them from practising their profession, Mohammed VI has long used the courts as a weapon to express his distaste of independent media. When these tactics brought international attention and condemnation from such groups as Reporters sans frontières (RSF) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the government switched to a fresh strategy: financially suffocating the publications.
A history, he;s done it a mere handful of times. Come now, a bit of balance. M6 is no great liberal, but benchmarked against the region, talking about "long used" is just hysterical language.
Well, this grows boring, the essential point is one can rarely trust activists, their poor little overheated brains get carried away.
As an example of the childish agitprop Morocco engages in domestically supporting the Saharan claims, let me direct you to this atrocious article whose title implies American support: Une ONG américaine dénonce dans une lettre à Rice les menaces de Mohamed Abdelazziz but in fact reports on the statement of what is clearly a pet NGO, "The American Council for Moroccan Prisononers of War." It's really a sad, even pitiful effort, worthy of the 1970s. The fellow named is a Polisario leader, btw.
TrackBack URL for this entry:
The idea of using libel to silence does make me nuts, I have to confess. The problem is that you have to measure, because of these laws, what you say (if you're a journalist of course, which I'm not) against the risk of being sued by the target of whatever it is you're saying, which if you don't work for a big organization with the bucks to defend itself against such an accusation, however baseless, is a problem.
Re the Western Sahara, I note they said "mineral-rich". What minerals? It just may be worth fighting over.
Posted by: pantom at April 23, 2006 03:39 PM
Singapore has, I learned somewhere, perfected the art of suing political opponents of the regime, rather than censoring, jailing or banning them. It seems quite effective, since nobody cares about - or is even aware of - political repression there...
Apart from Le Journal (which, or do I remember this wrong, will be sold because of this?), Tel-Quel was also sued big money for having published planted news of some sort (more loyal magazines who published the same were not). And former editor/political priser/allround oppositional Ali Lmrabet was both sued money and banned from practicing journalism for 10 years (thereby also losing his chances to register a new paper), in a 2005 libel case, brought by a more or less fictional "Sahrawi" organization which protested against him calling the Sahrawis "refugees", not "sequestered". (www.rsf.org knows more). So it's definitely some kind of trend. I expect other Arab governments, like Algeria, will pick up on it soon enough, if they haven't already.
There's loads of phosphate at Bou Craa and around. I don't think Morocco actually exploits it much, but at least it prevents competetition. Also, there's speculation on off-shore oil, particularly after Mauritania found it, but nothing conclusive. But I don't think resources were ever a main motive for occupying Western Sahara, rather it was a nationalist cause to prop up the king. Still is.
Posted by: alle at April 23, 2006 05:22 PM
Le journal might have to shut down. It might be sold of course.
Tel Quel's issue was a domestic libel case (again). A clever approach.
Re Western Sahara resources, Alle has it right, this is largely a nationalism issue but there are known mineral deposits - mostly phosphates but likely others, plus the potential of some small hydrocarbons deposits.
Finally, there is a security issue: Who controls the territory.
That is a non-trivial issue for any of the sovereign actors.
An "independent" Western Sahara is naturally going to be a satellite of one of the neighbors - it just doesn't have the economy to be otherwise. Reality means Algeria. If you are Morocco or Mauretania, no way you like that (above all given the nature of the Algerian regime).
Posted by: The Lounsbury at April 23, 2006 07:47 PM
Interesting post. I also share the inclination to relativise somewhat the description of the situation of press freedom in Morocco, in spite of the scandalous judgment against Le Journal Hebdomadaire.
While not a libel law scholar, the jurist I am is shocked by the judgment. For instance, ESISC boasts on its website of having foreign governments and intelligence agencies as its clients. It stresses that it lives on the proceedings from these dealings. It is therefore a mystery for me how its reputation can be said to have been damaged by the Journal's allegations that the Polisario report was paid for by the Moroccan government (I've skimmed through the report, which is indeed reminescent of the propagande tone of Le Matin du Sahara). And even if this specific allegation was wrong, the damage to ESISC's reputation should have been considered as purely symbolic, and the damages adjusted accordingly.
As a comparison, the damages awarded by a Casablanca tribunal last year to the parents of 19-months old Achraf Diwane, paralysed for life after having been injected with a flawed vaccination, were 3 millions of dirhams (see http://www.lagazettedumaroc.com/articles.php?id_artl=8029&n=446&r=2&sr=830), exactly the same amount awarded to ESISC...
I've written a bit more (and in French) about the ESISC affair on my blog - here http://www.blog.ma/obiterdicta/index.php?action=article&id_article=7872 and here http://www.blog.ma/obiterdicta/index.php?action=article&id_article=6697.
Btw, the owners of Le Journal have publicised their willingness to sell their shares in the paper - the names of putative buyers have included businessmen (and a businesswoman) "bien en cour" as they say in French - i.e., of a political persuasion agreeable to the powers that be...
Posted by: Ibn Kafka at April 24, 2006 09:59 AM
Ben Kafka, thanks for your comments. Indeed I think your two resumes are far superior to the overheated one that Bou Ardvrk cites, atlhough there are some points I might quibble with.
For those of you who do not read French, perhaps I shall find the time to summarise Ben Kakfa's notes - else let me note to other readers who are not franocphone that he has a very interesting blog on Morocco that bears reading.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at April 24, 2006 10:13 AM
I'd also note that in terms of the actual judgement, pressure on the Belgian as much as the Moroccan government would be useful. (Presuming Belgians are capable of shame).
Posted by: The Lounsbury at April 24, 2006 10:17 AM
So, L., what do you think of Belgians?
Posted by: Eva Luna at April 24, 2006 11:47 AM
Lounsbury, Claude Moniquet is French actually...but that is hardly a mitigating circumstance, is it?
Posted by: Ibn Kafka at April 24, 2006 12:58 PM
Bah, he's a Belgian in spirit, whatever his passport.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at April 24, 2006 03:11 PM
As I see it, anyone who first lets a dictatorship commission a tailor-made political report, then sues one of the few really independent newspapers in that dictatorship, then accepts a huge chunk of money for the "damages" knowing full well the trial was rigged, and then does nothing when the paper announces it won't survive, is clearly incapable of feeling shame.
And anyone who then repeats that whole process a second time in the appeals procedure, is clearly Belgian.
Posted by: alle at April 24, 2006 05:49 PM
Posted by: The Lounsbury at April 27, 2006 10:01 PM
From press freedom to soap opera: Moulay Hisham now offers to pay the fines, and Le Journal refuses on principle.
Posted by: alle at April 28, 2006 06:18 PM