In December 2006 I was invited to a regional media conference in Beirut, Lebanon. Each Arab country was represented by an independent journalist who was to sketch the situation in his country. The roundup started with a Yemeni editor and continued westbound. Being from Morocco, I was the last one on the program so I sat down and listened. A string of complaints ensued as my colleagues told what they were facing on a daily basis in their respective countries: heavy government censorship, physical intimidation,
imprisonments and, in some cases, torture. A publisher from Iraq even said: "Every evening I thank God for making it back home alive." When finally it was my turn, I took the microphone and addressed my colleagues: "I do commend your courage for enduring such terrible hardship. As for me, I have some censorship issues but honestly … compared with you guys, I live in Disneyland."
How could I not say that? At that time I had already been sued a couple of times by Morocco’s government for being too outspoken. But on the other hand, TelQuel and Nishan, the two newsmagazines for which I was publisher and editor, featured about every week a daring, taboo-tackling cover story: "The Salary of the King," "Sex and the Medina," "Let’s Re-Read the Qur’an," "Morocco: #1 Marijuana Producer in the World," and many more like that. Let’s be fair and square: had my government been as repressive as its Arab counterparts, none of these issues would have ever hit the stands. So yes, in comparative terms, freedom of speech in Morocco was something of a Disney-style fairy tale.
"Once upon a time" here applies to the middle of the 1990’s when a new generation of Moroccan journalists emerged. I was one of them. In our 20’s and just graduated from college, we awoke to political life and critical writing as King Hassan II was aging and his stranglehold on freedoms was slightly fading. But our true rise started after he passed away in 1999. Newly crowned King Mohammed VI, 36, was barely older than us, and he was said to be a genuine liberal. In the early 2000’s, while our Arab colleagues were struggling for survival amidst ruthless dictatorships, we were eager to take part in our country’s democratic renaissance.
The "nouvelle presse," as our recently created papers and magazines were dubbed, rose swiftly, eclipsing within months the traditional press, which was mainly dominated by the papers of political parties. Unlike the party journalists, ossified by decades of self-censorship and political calculations, we were young, independent, uninhibited and craving freedom. We quickly waded into hot territories, thoroughly exposing King Hassan’s "years of lead," past secret police abuses and the corruption of top officials. Asour sales boomed, the new king and his advisers took advantage of our audacity, waving it in the face of Western observers as early proof of Morocco’s democratization.
But the honeymoon didn’t last long. Having exhausted the vein of the old regime’s flaws, we started investigating those of the new one. That is when the trouble began. As we tackled topics like corruption in the military and the inner conflicts of the royal family, the palace grew more and more irritated. It started with copies being seized. Then some papers were banned by government decree before being allowed to come back under different names. After that, we entered a period of politically motivated libel trials—all of which were outrageously biased in favor of the plaintiffs. Every now and then independent journalists were interrogated for days in police stations, without necessarily being charged with any offense—just for the sake of intimidation.
However, whenever we were attacked we managed to attract worldwide media coverage and determined support from global watchdogs. Somehow it prompted the palace to back off, since further tarnishing the kingdom’s liberal reputation would have come at a diplomatic cost. On the other hand, the highly publicized attacks against us drew attention and increased readership. Yet maintaining sky-high sales numbers required a constant stream of daring cover stories, which in turn put our papers and magazines at greater risk.
I’m not sure whether this circle deserves to be called vicious or virtuous. Between a trial and a seizure, a smear campaign and a police interrogation, we were able to publish spectacular investigations on the king’s wealth and gigantic businesses, providing detailed numbers, exposing his corrupt entourage, and denouncing the cult of personality surrounding him. We also revealed the torture and abuses performed by secret police, this time during the current era, not the past one.
Paradoxically, while Morocco’s ranking in press freedom indexes was sinking lower and lower because journalists were being harassed, its reputation for liberalism toward the press was rising higher and higher because of striking cover stories. Each time I was invited to a conference abroad, I was torn about which side of the coin to present. In fact, Morocco’s situation was strange, maybe unique: where else in the world could you find, at the same time, a government so visibly corrupt and a space so wide for journalists to denounce it? In what other country was the independent press relentlessly harassed and still vivid, daring and popular?
Yet those inconsistencies were eventually "fixed" and the situation "adjusted." The royal palace finally got the upper hand when it understood that the press’s weak point was money. So it changed tactics; instead of highly dramatic police actions, it moved to civil enforcement of huge legal fines and, more decisively, to advertising boycotts. Since the monarchy controls Morocco’s big business, the royal secretariat has leverage to pressure most of the major advertisers. So when orders were given to stop buying advertising in independent newspapers, all the big companies complied.
The effect was quickly felt. Bled dry of financial resources, some outspoken outlets started to juggle debts, delaying tax payments and thus exposing themselves to judicial reprisal. Others reduced expenses to unbearable levels. Within two years, previously flamboyant papers were closed by judicial rulings, bankrupted or driven to adopt softer editorial lines as the price of survival. Many press pioneers quit and left the country, leaving behind an increasingly subdued media landscape. Among my generation of editors, I was the last to leave.
I arrived in the United States in the early days of February 2011. Two weeks later, on February 20, hundreds of thousands of Moroccans hit the streets in massive protests, in the wake of revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Suddenly people were chanting in the streets what we had been writing in editorials for a decade. But there were few independent papers left to cover it. Today daring criticism in Morocco is mainly happening on the Internet. Some of us, gone broke with print outlets, are now trying to launch information Web portals—only to find out that for that too, we need advertisers’ money. This is not encouraging since, with or without the Arab Spring, Morocco’s big business is still controlled by the king’s cronies.
This past April, I was invited to another international conference, this time in Washington, D.C. There I met a fellow journalist from Egypt who told me that even though Hosni Mubarak was toppled, she and her colleagues still faced arbitrary arrests and mistreatment—from beatings to torture—by the army.
"What about Morocco?" she asked me. I didn’t know what to answer. In broad comparison, my colleagues back home still looked privileged. Yet this time, I didn’t feel like evoking Disneyland.
Ahmed Benchemsi, an award-winning journalist and the former publisher and editor of Morocco’s two best-selling newsweeklies, TelQuel and Nishan, is now a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Program on Arab Reform and Democracy.