Moroccan Blogger Walid Bahomane Sentenced to One Year of Prison and an Issue of the Newspaper El Pais Banned for Disseminating the Same Caricature of King Mohammed VI


Cartoon by Damien Glez

The Moroccan regime’s recent reactions to one dated cartoon have twice proven that the reforms to the Moroccan constitution enacted in response to last summer’s protests have not yet secured the hoped-for progress on free speech.  Disseminating even mild criticism of the King is still a serious, punishable offense.  First published by the French paper Le Monde in 2009, the above cartoon by Burkina Faso-based professional cartoonist Damien Glez has sparked two unwarranted recent reactions from authorities in Morocco. 

On February 7, 2012, Walid Bahomane, a Moroccan 18-year-old, was accused in court in the Moroccan capital of Rabat of “defaming Morocco’s sacred values.”  According to the police report Walid launched two Facebook pages on which he posted videos and cartoons of King Mohammed VI.   That police report, which is shown below, was posted to the Internet by Global Voices Advocacy, a global anti-censorship network of bloggers and online activists dedicated to free access to online information.   On February 16, 2012, the court changed tactics and convicted Walid of pirating one of those cartoons by Damien Glez, sentenced Walid to a year in prison and fined him 10,000 dirhams (1,000 euros) in spite of Damien’s calls for leniency.   On February 16, 2012, the distribution of the Spanish daily El Pais was banned for including the same Glez cartoon which caricatures the King of Morocco.

While Morocco’s constitution was amended in 2011, there remains plenty of ambiguous language for the regime to latch on to when repressing speech.  To quote Sami Errazzouki from Jadaliyya.com,“Article 23 of the previous constitution states, ‘The person of the King shall be sacred and inviolable.‘  In the [French version of the] new constitution, the word ‘sacred’ no longer appears in reference to the king.  However, article 46 states, ‘The person of the King is inviolable and respect is owed to him.’ …  The Arabic version is slightly different.  As journalist Ahmed Benchemsi has pointed out [in the January 2012 Journal of Democracy], ‘In Arabic, it reads: ‘The King’s person is inviolable, and ihtiram [respect] and tawqeer are owed to him.’ Ihtiram wa tawqeer is an ancient expression used to signify the privileged status of those who claim descent from [the Prophet] Muhammad himself – a group that includes members of Morocco’s 350-year-old dynasty.'”  Furthermore, while the new constitution contains language ostensibly protecting free speech rights, there is also plenty of language reserving governmental authority to censor speech.  Walid’s conviction for the crime of lèse-majesté, or insult to the King, appears to be the first since the constitution was supposedly reformed.

Click on "Violating Sacred Values" in Morocco: Free Speech with an Exception to read the report by Sami Errazzouki.  Click on Morocco: Authorities Keep Media in Check and Reinforce Online Crackdown to read a report by the human rights organization Reporters Without Borders.  And read In Morocco and Saudia Arabia, Limits Seen to Speech and Social Media by J. David Goodman from The Lede blog of The New York Times.       Cartoon by Khalid Kadar

The fact that the reform of the constitution has not guaranteed freedom of speech and freedom of the press became evident almost immediately.  In July 2011, a matter of just days after the new constitution was enacted, an issue of the French weekly newspaper Le Courrier International was banned for including a cartoon by Khalid Kadar depicting the King jet skiing on a pile of cash.  

Besides cartoons with caricatures of the King, other expressed critiques of the regime have led to crackdowns.  El Pais was again banned by the government on February 26, 2012.  This time the paper was banned for including passages from the book Predator King: Buying up Morocco by Catherine Graciet and Eric Laurent.  Twenty-four year-old student Abdelsamad Haydour was sentenced to three years of prison and fined 10,000 dirhams on a charge of “attacking the nation’s sacred values” for harshly denouncing the King and the regime during a public demonstration.  Video of that approximate four minute speech was posted on YouTube. (It should be noted that newspapers with images of either the Prophet or God also continue to be banned in Morocco.) 

Damien Glez for his part has written an open letter to the King of Morocco urging the monarch to pardon Walid.  The letter translated by the staff at World Policy Journal reads as follows:

A large number of political leaders rant against being drawn by caricaturists of their country.  It is an attitude as diverting as it is incongruous, that you must have observed in Brussels, capital of the comic strip, during your trip in 1988 on the invitation of Jacque Delors, at the time president of the European Commission.  Not being “chewed up” in a humorous publication is to lack notoriety, even popularity.  And this is not a Eurocentric analysis.  The best-loved of all African heads of state, Nelson Mandela, amused himself with these sketches, to the point where he actually contacted some of their authors like Zapiro.  If your image is considered sacred by the law of your country, and thus banned from the pencils of the artists, you should know that the former leader of the ANC, himself, is sacred to the hearts of his people, especially because he has accepted such humorous critiques.

Monarchs as majestic as your majesty, in the image of your "neighbor" Juan Carlos affirmed their appreciation of graphic representations.  Faint sincerity?  What difference?  The King of Spain certainly is sincere by accepting that the drawing of Kap or Antoni Ortiz Fuster—as audacious as they might be—only consolidates his position on the throne.  Attacking every lover of caricatures is a strategic error.  Especially since the extent to which a drawing is spread is exponential to the censure that that's brought against it.  Such a desperate effort to sterilize these efforts, can only be most darkly counterproductive.

Moroccan activists meanwhile have come up with a creative way to voice their support for Walid's and every Moroccans’ right to have and to express opinions free of censorship and repression.  They have launched a Facebook support group called Mohammed VI, my freedom is more sacred than you.  This group has reason to believe their efforts have a chance to succeed.  A previous online campaign that galvanized both the Moroccan community and the international community led to the release of Fouad Mourtada, a young man who received a prison sentence of three years for impersonating the King's brother on Facebook.  As result of the online campaign, Mourtada was released a month after his arrest. Mohammed VI, my freedom is more sacred than you now has a large collection of King Mohammed caricatures.  The Cartoonists Rights Network International urges you to visit the site and express your support by posting words of encouragement for Walid or by posting a clever caricature of the King.