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Cablegate: Moi Temporarily Bans Independent Daily Over

VZCZCXYZ2280
OO RUEHWEB

DE RUEHRB #0827/01 2791654
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
O 061654Z OCT 09
FM AMEMBASSY RABAT
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 0714
INFO RUCNMGH/MAGHREB COLLECTIVE

UNCLAS RABAT 000827

SIPDIS
SENSITIVE

State for NEA/MAG, DRL/NESCA AND NEA/PPD
London for MOC

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PHUM PREL KPAO MO
SUBJECT: MOI Temporarily Bans Independent Daily Over
Inscrutable Cartoon

Ref: Rabat 608

1. (U) This cable is sensitive but unclassified.
Please protect accordingly.

-------------------
Summary and Comment
-------------------

2. (SBU) On September 28, Morocco's Ministry of
Interior (MoI) banned an independent daily from
publication, seizing copies of the newspaper in
circulation, and shuttering its offices. The move
followed publication of a cartoon showing recently-
wed Prince Moulay Ismail at his wedding ceremony
seated in front of a Moroccan flag with a star
resembling the Star of David. The newspaper was
allowed to resume publishing two days later, but
faces additional civil legal action and a defamation
lawsuit by the prince. The MOI action unleashed a
spirited debate on-line and in the written press,
with some taking the government's side, often
claiming that the cartoon was anti-Semitic, and
others viewing this as one of a recent series of
media-muzzling events (reftel). This incident is
part of a worrisome trend of growing official
antipathy towards the independent press which, if
intended to promote self-censorship, appears
consistently to be backfiring. End summary and
comment.

--------------------------------------
Morocco's Very Own Cartoon Controversy
--------------------------------------

3. (U) The cartoon, published on September 26 by
independent Arabic-language daily "Akhbar Al Youm,"
depicts Prince Moulay Ismail (a first cousin of King
Mohammed VI) seated during his wedding ceremony.
Behind him all is painted red, the background of the
Moroccan flag. On the red background, partially
obscured behind the prince, is a green star, as on
the Moroccan flag. Although obscured, the flag is
unmistakably a six-pointed Star of David, rather
than the five-pointed star of the Moroccan flag.
The caption simply identifies the subject and the
location.

4. (U) Debate about the meaning of the cartoon has
raged in Morocco, especially in the blogosphere, but
most observers judge it to be inscrutable. Prince
Moulay is not known to be particularly in favor of
normalization with Israel. There have not been any
known controversies connecting him to Israel. Some
local bloggers have suggested that the cartoon is an
oblique reference to the bride's German origins (she
comes from a German diplomatic family that converted
to Islam before her birth), and is commenting on the
complicated Germany-Israel-Arab relationship. Some
even see the prince's arm position as raised in a
Nazi salute.

-----------------
Authorities React
-----------------

5. (U) The Saturday/Sunday issue containing the
cartoon was not pulled from kiosks until Monday, the
same day the MOI sent officers to close "Akhbar Al
Youm"'s main office in Casablanca, and detain the
paper's director, Taoufiq Bouachrine, and cartoonist
Khaled Kadar, for questioning. Bouachrine claims he
was threatened by the secret police. "Akhbar Al
Youm" was not allowed to publish again until
September 30. In explaining its actions, the MOI in
a statement called the cartoon "a blatant disrespect
to a member of the royal family. In addition to
tendentiously using the national flag, the cartoon
undermines a symbol of the Nation by insulting the
emblem of the Kingdom? the use of the Star of David
in the cartoon raises many questions on the
insinuations of the people behind it and suggests
flagrant anti-Semitic penchants."

6. (U) Minister of Communications Khalid Naciri,
the government spokesperson who was also front-and-
center during the August controversy about polling
the popularity of the King, gave a press conference

on October 1 defending the government's actions.
"It is the duty of the government to implement the
law to put an end to actions that breach the laws in
force." Naciri again referenced Morocco's superior
press freedom compared to other Arab and African
countries, but pointed out that journalists had to
operate within a "professional framework" that
engendered "responsible media" instead of just
"slander."

-------------------
No Offense Intended
-------------------

7. (SBU) Bouachrine told PAS that "it was a strange
decision by the MoI and a big surprise; the decision
is illegal." He added that only the Prime
Minister's office had the legal authority to suspend
publication of a newspaper. Bouachrine insisted
that the cartoonist meant to draw a five-pointed
star, but made a mistake. (Comment: Anyone seeing
the cartoon in question finds this entirely
implausible. End comment.) Bouchrine has blanketed
the local press with interviews, pressing his case
that the MoI acted inappropriately and illegally,
and that the newspaper had meant no offense,
intending simply to mark the prince's wedding with a
cartoon depicting him in celebration.

---------------------------------
Mixed Reactions in Moroccan Press
---------------------------------

8. (U) Most partisan newspapers supported the
government's position, and were harshly critical of
"Akhbar Al Youm." "L'Opinion," an organ of
nationalist Istiqlal party, called "Akhbar Al Youm"
"dangerous and irresponsible." Istiqlal's Arabic
daily, "Al Alam," said that "Akhbar Al Youm" had
humiliated the national flag. A newspaper
affiliated with socialist USFP also backed the
government. Several commentaries in the partisan
press cited the perceived anti-Semitism of the
cartoon in support of their position.

9. (U) For their part, independent news outlets
have largely sided with "Akhbar Al Youm," seeing its
travails as emblematic of a series of actions
stretching back through 2009 that trace an
increasingly worrying trend of press freedom
impingement. "Nichane," recently caught in its own
confrontation with the government (see reftel), was
most scathing: "Violations against press freedoms
have continued with a rocketing pace, an
unprecedented pace? we have never seen anything like
this in Morocco? in the event that the situation
continues to deteriorate at such a rapid pace, we
are heading with firm steps towards 'dictatorship.'"

10. (U) The main journalists' union (SNPM) and the
Committee to Protect Journalists came out strongly
in favor of the paper. SNPM called the GOM actions
"an illegal step and a flagrant violation of the
law." CPJ's New York office issued a statement
condemning the government's move and pointed out
that Moroccan Press Law only allows the ministry to
ban a single issue of a periodical deemed
disrespectful to the royal family. The two
organizations representing Moroccan publishers have
not weighed in formally, although the head of the
main publishers' association (FMEJ) wrote an
editorial supporting "Akhbar Al Youm" in the
newspaper he runs, "Aujourd'hui le Maroc."

11. (U) Interestingly, an on-line poll being
conducted by the popular Moroccan news portal
Hespress.com finds Moroccan public opinion roughly
evenly split. Hespress.com asked its readers to
respond to the question: "Do you support suing
Akhbar Al Youm?" As of October 5, the results were
50% against, and 45% in favor.

12. (U) Government accusations of anti-Semitism
were echoed by the Council of Morocco's Jewish
Communities (CCIM), which formally expressed its
outrage at the cartoon and highlighted the norms of
tolerance in Morocco. Independent daily "Al Jarida
Al Oula" disagreed, expressing in a front-page

editorial "deep surprise" at the accusations and in
turn accusing the Jewish community of focusing on
the cartoon instead of recent violent events in
Jerusalem and the Al Aqsa mosque dispute.

-------
Comment
-------

13. (SBU) While this incident will most likely pass
with little or no legal action taken against "Akhbar
Al Youm," it serves to reinforce what is an
increasingly worrisome trend of growing official
antipathy towards the independent press. Each of
these incidents also further reinforces the futility
of GOM efforts to modulate freedom of expression.
This poorly drawn and frankly uninteresting cartoon,
initially seen by perhaps a few thousand readers,
would have quickly been forgotten. But as a result
of the GOM reaction, many times the initial number
saw the cartoon, launching a vigorous debate on-line
and in the written press about both the meaning of
the cartoon, and the legitimacy of GOM actions
against "Akhbar Al Youm."

13. (SBU) Moroccan authorities appear not to
understand their predicament: the Moroccan press and
blogosphere are free enough to debate endlessly --
and in embarrassing (for the government) detail --
each official effort to rein in press freedom. This
in turn exposes the GOM to international opprobrium,
while simultaneously expanding greatly the number of
Moroccans who learn about the lapse (perceived or
otherwise) in journalistic ethics the authorities
sought to suppress. Meanwhile, the increasing
number of these incidents suggests that GOM measures
are decreasingly effective even in promoting self-
censorship. As a result, Moroccan authorities end
up with the worst of all worlds: widely (and
internationally) publicized criticism for their
occasional heavy-handed efforts that harms their
international reputation, but without the means to
genuinely keep a lid on press coverage or commentary
not to their liking. End comment.

Kaplan

© Scoop Media

 
 
 
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