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Tyler McBrien is an intern in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.
A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report on coerced confessions in Morocco, which was released last week, has led many observers to question whether the United States’ North African ally actually represents a democratic oasis in the region, as it is often presented to be. The study noted that many Moroccans are currently imprisoned “for their nonviolent speech or political activity.” American officials and Western media outlets often credit King Mohammed VI with deftly sidestepping the Arab Spring through liberalization and political reform. However, as the HRW report suggests, some elements of these heralded reforms are noticeably lagging behind.
In a region rife with assassinations of journalists and country-wide Internet shut-downs, Morocco may seem like a Jeffersonian republic in terms of free speech. Indeed, in 2006, a prominent Moroccan news editor and publisher Ahmed Benchemsi called the press climate in Morocco “something of a Disney-style fairy tale” compared to other countries in the region. Like many fairy tales, however, the favorable climate for journalists was once upon a time, and unlike many fairy tales, it did not end happily ever after.
By 2009, Moroccan authorities had seized 100,000 copies of Benchemsi’s popular newsweeklies, TelQuel and Nichane, forcing the latter out of business. The outlawed magazines had published a poll that estimated King Mohammed VI’s approval rating to be 91 percent, which, despite the astronomical figure, was seen as subversive for suggesting that Moroccans had a right to judge their monarch. Since the Arab Spring and the Islamist party’s rise to power, the palace has been less heavy handed but equally as effective in restricting the press. When Islamist-backed Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane challenged royal control of the television networks, the king parried the blow by appointing a special commission to settle the matter. Given that royal appointees outrank elected officials, it’s not surprising that the networks remain in the king’s power.
The restrictions on speech are not limited to print, television, and other forms of traditional media. In June 2012, a Moroccan blogger, who had been critical of the king, was sentenced to two years in prison for possession of cannabis in a trial that witnessed an unusually quick conviction and a host of procedural errors. Additionally, earlier that year, teenage student Walid Bahomane received an eighteen month prison term for posting photos and videos on Facebook that caricaturized the king. The courts found him guilty of “defaming Morocco’s sacred values.”
King Mohammed eschews the overt Bashar al-Assad style suppression of speech, opting for a more clandestine approach—all while receiving praise from high-level American officials. At the September 2012 U.S.-Morocco Strategic Dialogue, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commended the king for “holding free and fair elections, empowering the elected parliament, and taking other steps to ensure that the government reflects the will of the people.” And just last May, President Obama spoke over the phone with the Moroccan monarch, reaffirming the U.S.-Morocco relationship by personally inviting him to Washington, DC. A strategic partnership in counterterrorism underlies the undue praise. In its latest annual Country Reports on Terrorism, the U.S. State Department underscored the “continued robust counterterrorism collaboration” with Morocco.
While Morocco’s counterterrorism efforts are commendable, praise from Clinton and others that Morocco’s government “reflects the will of the people” persist despite assessments from international watchdogs. Morocco ranks 136 out of 179 on the Press Freedom Index and has been condemned by Freedom House, Reporters Without Borders, and other organizations. The latest HRW report should remind American officials and Western journalists that the Moroccan king is still no prince charming when it comes to free speech.