By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 26, 2005
CASABLANCA -- The most notorious satirist in Morocco pulls out a pen and shows how easy it is for him to get into trouble. He doodles on a blank sheet of paper, sketching the turrets of a castle and a dialogue balloon coming from a tower. Is he daring to draw another cartoon about the king?
Ali Lmrabet grins widely but doesn't say anything. He puts down the pen. It is a serious crime in Morocco to insult King Mohammed VI or make fun of the monarchy. Having already spent six months in prison for doing exactly that, Lmrabet decides to exercise a little caution -- for now.
Balding and slightly overweight, with an ink stain on his shirt pocket and taped-together eyeglasses, Lmrabet doesn't look like much of a threat to the royal order in Morocco. But the journalist and former publisher of what was perhaps the most unrestrained satirical magazine in the Arab world has made some powerful enemies.
"I'm not a revolutionary, I'm just defending freedom of speech," Lmrabet said in a recent interview in a dusty news bureau in Casablanca. "I never said we had to change the king -- no, no, no, no! But I said that some things the king is doing, I do not like. Is that a crime?"
The answer to that question is a moving target in Morocco, which in the past few years has witnessed the rapid development of a vibrant, free press with few equals in North Africa or the Middle East.
Newspapers and magazines now have an open license to criticize the government as they please, a major change from the days of the king's father, Hassan II, who died in 1999 after 38 years on the throne. Under Hassan II, information was so tightly controlled that even the name of his wife was considered an official secret. Thousands of opponents of the monarchy were thrown into prison.
Criticism of the monarchy remains officially taboo. But flush with their newfound freedoms, journalists in Morocco are testing the boundaries. In January, one magazine had the audacity to report details of the royal family's spending habits -- $270 million a year, charged to taxpayers. Although the report provoked a public uproar, the publication was not sanctioned.
Few have pushed the envelope as much as Lmrabet, who in 2001 founded a French-language satirical magazine called Demain and an Arabic-language version, Doumain, that became instant sensations and bestsellers for their use of sharp-edged humor to poke fun at politicians, as well as Mohammed VI.
Although the magazines took care not to trash the king by name or by face, the cartoons didn't leave much to the imagination. One showed courtiers lining up to kiss a giant bare foot outside a castle. Another depicted bags of money piling up in a palace. Articles made sly references to the love lives of important government officials.
The coverage generated plenty of criticism, which portrayed Lmrabet as a reckless publisher who attacks people with no regard for the facts.
"I cannot pronounce any judgment on the professional value of Mr. Lmrabet, but as a person I can say that he makes new enemies every day," said one of his targets, Justice Minister Mohamed Bouzoubaa. "I think he should wisen up and behave."
At the same time, Lmrabet has gotten support from some unlikely corners. Prince Moulay Hicham, a cousin of the king, has spoken out on the publisher's behalf.
"He's made it a profession to cross all the red lines. There have been many times when his journalism has been excessive and unjust," the prince said in a telephone interview. "But this is not about Ali Lmrabet, it is about freedom of expression, which for me is a much more important issue."
On May 21, 2003, Lmrabet was sentenced to four years in prison for "insulting the king" and "damaging the monarchy." But rather than silence him, the punishment turned Lmrabet into a cause celebre.
Even in prison, Lmrabet displayed a flair for public relations. He went on a hunger strike and generated so much attention that he won $50,000 in prizes from international organizations dedicated to the protection of journalists and free speech. After six months behind bars, he received a royal pardon and was released.
Since then, he's been angling to resume publication, much to the discomfort of the government, which publicly remains committed to its new free speech policies but is not exactly eager to give Lmrabet a soapbox again.
In March, after battling for months with media regulators, Lmrabet received a temporary license giving him permission to start a new magazine. In an interview at the time, however, he predicted that the government would continue to throw obstacles in his way. "I do believe that I'm going to publish again, but I also believe that they are going to make my life very, very hard," he said.
This week, he was proved correct. A judge in Rabat found him guilty of defamation for comments he made in an interview with another newspaper, in which he questioned the government's claims about the status of refugees in Western Sahara. As punishment, he was fined about $6,000 and banned from practicing journalism for 10 years.
Although it is unclear whether the ruling will stand, the Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders called the decision "a serious blot on freedom of opinion and the press in Morocco," and added: "It is obvious that the Moroccan authorities want to silence Ali Lmrabet at a time when he was waiting for the final go-ahead to bring out a new newspa per."