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Morocco's serious humor gap

January 15, 2007|Fadoua Benaich and Jesse Sage | FADOUA BENAICH is a Moroccan journalist based in Washington. JESSE SAGE directs the HAMSA project of the American Islamic Congress.

THE ONLY REAL DANGER to a political joke in the United States is missing your mark. Just ask John Kerry.

Although Americans can make light of their leaders, their enemies and even the Iraq war, a fundamental challenge to freedom of expression is happening just off our radar screen in Morocco. There, two of the country's leading journalists face five-year prison sentences, crippling fines and/or being banned from publication, all for an article about political humor.

Driss Ksikes is the editor of Nichane, a weekly magazine published in Morocco's local drija Arabic dialect. The magazine's name means "direct," and it launched in September with a goal of bringing a fresh perspective to a country emerging from decades of brutal civil rights repression under King Hassan II, who died in 1999.

In a special edition of Nichane in early December, Ksikes published an insightful cover story by up-and-coming writer Sanae Al Aji on humor in Morocco. The piece, titled, "How Moroccans Laugh at Religion, Sex and Politics," cataloged popular Moroccan jokes and invited social critics to analyze the punchlines. As humor typically touches on social taboos, the article discussed jokes mocking the king, Islamist imams and attitudes toward women.

This is an election year in Morocco, and both the monarchy and the opposition Islamist parties seized on the opportunity to make an example of Nichane. Islamist websites branded the magazine worse than any Danish publication, and the editors got death threats. Prime Minister Driss Jettou issued an injunction banning it from newsstands and shutting its website. Declaring the magazine a threat to the "fundamental values of Moroccan society," prosecutors have now put Ksikes and Al Aji on trial in a Casablanca court for "damaging the Islamic religion, lacking proper respect for the king and publishing of writings contrary to public morals." A verdict is expected today.

Morocco had been a symbol of hope for reform in the Mideast in recent years. King Mohammed VI's father stifled public discourse and tortured opponents for decades, but the new ruler has enhanced civil liberties, particularly for women. That Al Aji has become the first female reporter to face prison time in Morocco is a perverse sign of progress in gender equality.

Still, the door opened to a more vibrant public discourse. In 2005, Nichane's parent publication -- the French weekly TelQuel, aimed at the country's Francophone elite -- ran a cover expose on the king's salary. Other TelQuel issues explored homosexuality and drug use in Morocco. The country got its first journalism school, and many of its top graduates work for Nichane. Now that staff is waiting to hear the verdict and learn the fate of the magazine.

The banning of Nichane and the sentences hanging over Ksikes and Al Aji painfully illustrate the fragility of newfound freedoms. Across North Africa and the Middle East, dictators and Islamist political forces have been emboldened. The movement toward greater freedom that seemed unstoppable a few years ago is now being smothered.

Americans should see the fate of Nichane as a warning. The magazine offered a model of investigative journalism and open inquiry for the rest of the region. After all, the reporters did not invent the jokes in the "offending" article, but rather dissected popular humor to examine Moroccan society. This is the kind of critical journalism -- probing, relevant and with popular appeal -- needed in the Arab and Muslim world.

The Moroccan government must know that the world is watching. Freedom of expression and freedom of the press are not liberties to be revoked at will. They are fundamental building blocks of a free society. Although Nichane's cover story used jokes as a bellwether of Moroccan society, the prosecution of the magazine's staff is a sad joke about where social reform in the Middle East may be headed.

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