Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Freedom of Speech in Morocco

This piece appeared in the Los Angeles Times about the lack of Freedom of Speech in Morocco these days. Its worth reading.

Muffled speech in Morocco

LAST MONTH, A SMALL ITEM in Morocco's most provocative magazine pointed out that a female member of Parliament had once been a cheikha — a kind of Moroccan cabaret dancer. She sued, and now the writer and the magazine's editor face prison time and what may be the harshest fine ever handed down in a Moroccan libel case.

Never mind that the member of Parliament was not actually named in the magazine. Or that the allegation was true. Or that the judge did not listen to arguments from either side. Or that the magazine's editor, Ahmed R. Benchemsi, not only wasn't at the hearing to defend himself but was out of the country at the time — serving, as it happens, as an editorial fellow on the Los Angeles Times editorial board.

While it isn't Times policy to harbor fugitives from Third World justice, nor to argue their cases in print, Benchemsi's plight is so illustrative of what passes for justice and freedom of speech in much of the world — and of the kind of low-grade harassment journalists face even from many "progressive" regimes — that it deserves comment. Morocco is a beacon of relative freedom and tolerance in the Arab world; King Mohammed VI is a close ally of the U.S., and President Bush in his State of the Union address cited the country as an example of the positive democratic reforms starting to take hold across the region.

Yet consider some of the details from Benchemsi's case. His French-language magazine, TelQuel, takes impish glee in tweaking the establishment, exposing such taboo subjects as the king's monthly salary. The cheikha item was just a gossipy tidbit, and the plaintiff's lawyer was asking for only a fine, not prison time.

The judge ignored a letter from Benchemsi, presented by his lawyer, asking for a postponement until he returned to the country. At the hearing Monday, the judge recessed at noon and said proceedings would resume at 2:30 p.m. Then the judge returned to court at 2:15 p.m. and ruled that, because neither side's attorney was present, the case was closed. Shortly afterward, he sentenced both Benchemsi and the article's writer to two months in prison and fined the magazine the equivalent of $100,000 — a fee so punitive by Moroccan standards that it could force the magazine out of business. Benchemsi plans to appeal when he returns to Morocco in September.

Benchemsi is probably correct when he asserts that the ruling had little to do with the cheikha item; someone in Morocco's establishment clearly doesn't appreciate TelQuel's independent journalism. But if such an arbitrary ruling isn't reversed, Morocco's image in the outside world will take a deserved blow.


Anonymous barney said...


I read the item you posted in the Times, and wondered how Morocco compared, with regard to freedom of the press, with other Muslim countries, and also how it compared to its neighbors. To find out, I needed a measure of the amount of press freedom enjoyed by each country.

As you probably know, 'Reporters sans Frontieres' (RSF) routinely assesses the amount of press freedom in most countries, and posts the results on their website ( Using their data, we have a chance of determining just how Morocco stacks up.

I do not know how RSF actually measures the degree of press freedom of a country, and I am taking them at face value. I assume that their data accurately reflect the amount of freedom of the press in each country. Let's call their measure the 'freedom of the press score', or FPS. For all countries they studied, the FPSs varied from 0.5 for a country with the most press freedom, up to 107.5 (for North Korea). which implies the most repression of the press.

They arranged the countries in order of increasing values of FPS, and then assigned a rank of 1 for the country with the most freedom, up to a rank of 167, for the country with the most repressive press behavior.

I will make the comparisons solely based on rank order.

What countries should we compare Morocco with? I picked three groups:
A - All countries in RSF database
B - All Muslim countries in the Middle
East and North Africa
C - Morocco's neighbors.


For all 167 countries, Morocco ranked 126, meaning that 125 countries had a better record of press freedom, and 41 countries had a worse record of press freedom than Morocco. Based on ranks, Morocco stands on the 75th percentile, which means that 75% of all countries have a better record than does Morocco.

I like analyses based only on rank order, as this avoids many of the problems encountered in analyzing measures or scores with unknown characteristics. For such an analysis to be valid, it only requires that in the method of scoring used by RSF, the FPS for a country with a given amount of press freedom, will be higher than for a country with a lower amount of press freedom.

The scores (FPSs) from all countries range from 0.5 (best record) to 107.5 (worst record); Morocco's score is 43.


The 23 countries selected in this group were Muslim countries along the Mediterranean, from Saudi Arabia in the west to Morocco in the east; in which Shari'ia exerts a strong influence. They were: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, U A E, West Sahara, Yemen. (Turkey, Oman and West. Sahara were not in RSF's database, leaving 20 countries in the comparison)

Only four Mediterranean Islamic countries enjoyed more press freedom than does Morocco, which stands at the 75th percentile of press freedom. Morocco is among the most moderate Islamic countries. I had thought, subjectively, that Morocco's press was more free than Algeria's, just based on past readings of Moroccan and Algerian news sources, but these data suggest that both countries have about the same degree of press freedom.


How does Morocco stack up against its neighbors? For this comparison, I selected Morocco's immediate neighbors and their next-to-immediate neighbors, for a total of eight countries. The data, in order of increasing repressive press behavior, are:

Country Rank Score
---------- ------ -------
Portugal 25 4,50
Spain 40 9,00
Mali 56 12,83
Morocco 126 43,00 <<
Algeria 128 43,50
Mauritania 138 51,00
Tunisia 152 62,67
Libya 154 65,00

Morocco, rank-wise, falls right in the middle of its neighbors.

Hope you find this enlightening!


8:20 PM, August 21, 2005  
Blogger loren824paul said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6:03 PM, August 26, 2005  
Blogger saad said...

Thanks barney for the interesting analysis.

This was very enlightening.

10:14 PM, August 26, 2005  

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