Humor Article Leads to Conviction of 2 in Morocco

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 16, 2007

CASABLANCA, Morocco, Jan. 15 -- A Moroccan court convicted a magazine editor and a reporter Monday on charges of defamation for printing heard-on-the-street jokes about religion and politics, the latest case in which journalists here have been punished for trying to make readers laugh.

A Casablanca judge gave three-year suspended jail sentences to Driss Ksikes, editor of Nichane magazine, and Sanaa al-Aji, a staff reporter, and fined them the equivalent of $9,280 each for publishing jokes that a prosecutor called "contrary to morals and customs." Nichane, an Arabic-language newsweekly whose name means "As It Is," was also barred from publication for two months.

Morocco has rapidly developed what is perhaps the most robust free press in the Arab world, a trend that started in 1999 after liberal-minded King Mohammed VI succeeded his authoritarian father, King Hassan II, and announced broad plans to modernize the country. But the spontaneous emergence of muckrakers and political commentators among the country's print media has provoked a backlash recently from the government.

The government has sought to shut down several other publications that have criticized or poked fun at the government. One editor, Ali Lmrabet, was imprisoned and then prohibited from practicing journalism for 10 years after his Demain magazine printed cartoons and jokes that indirectly lampooned the monarchy. It remains a crime in Morocco to say anything negative about the king, who retains ultimate authority over the government.

Moroccan journalists said it has become increasingly difficult to figure out how far they can go in exercising their newfound liberties. Ahmed R. Benchemsi, the publisher of Nichane and a French-language newsweekly, TelQuel, said his magazines had broached sensitive topics before -- one article revealed details about the king's personal finances -- without apparent repercussions.

"I wish I knew where the red lines were," Benchemsi said in an interview Monday after the verdict was announced. "I would never have imagined that reprinting common jokes would have been like stepping on a land mine. And I am an expert on land mines: I have been dodging them for five years."

The latest article to raise hackles was a Nichane cover piece last month titled, "How Moroccans Laugh at Religion, Sex and Politics." Editors said they thought the reprinted jokes were inoffensive and familiar to many Moroccans.

One bit featured prankster angels playing a joke on a companion of the prophet Muhammad by making him think he was destined to spend eternity in hell. As the holy man panics, he is interrupted by the punch line: "Smile! You're on Candid Camera!"

The Moroccan government was not amused. Authorities ordered Nichane removed from newsstands and filed criminal charges against the editor and reporter after receiving complaints from an obscure Web site run by fundamentalist Muslims and from the Kuwaiti government.

The defendants said they would appeal the conviction but expressed relief that the judge suspended their jail sentences and did not permanently ban them from practicing journalism, as prosecutors had sought. But other Moroccan journalists said it was hard to take any solace in the outcome.

"The best sign that could have been sent would have been to not prosecute them in the first place," said Aboubakr Jamai, publisher of Le Journal Hebdomadaire, a newsweekly that has been repeatedly prosecuted and fined by the government for its aggressive reporting.

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