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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

“In Morocco, journalism is the only opposition to tyranny”

Souleiman BENCHEIKH, editor in chief of Zameni magazine, on the readiness of the Arab world for freedom
20 October, 2011 - 00:00

The 7th Global Investigative Journalism Conference opened in Kyiv on October 2011. More than 450 media workers from all over the world are convening to exchange their experience. The most prestigious investigative journalism awards worldwide, the Daniel Pearl Award and the Global Shining Light Award, will also be adjudged. On the eve of the Conference, The Day spoke with one of the participants, a Moroccan journalist and editor in chief of the first history journal in the Arab world Zameni (“Time” in Arabic), Souleiman BENCHEIKH .

Many observers emphasize the exceptional role of the net in the Arab revolutions. What do you think?

“Social media played an important role in the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. It’s quite possible to say that Morocco’s February 20 Movement [a movement for the restriction of the monarch’s rights and a greater social justice. – Author] also coordinates and plans its actions due to Facebook and Twitter. Many activists are active bloggers as well. But this is not the first time something like this has happened. Similar practices were used during the revolution in Iran [the so-called ‘green revolution,’ protest actions in Iran in 2009 following the formal announcement of the results of the presidential election. – Author].”

How do you see the situation in the Arab world after the so-called “Arab Spring”?

“In Morocco we have a very peculiar situation because we are a monarchy. It differed from what Tunisia’s Ben Ali or Egypt’s Mubarak had, because the king of Morocco is not elected. On July 2011, Moroccans voted for the new constitution [the document, despite partly limiting the monarch’s rights, still vested the king with full power. – Author] 99.8 percent of the population supported the new constitution. However, this number is unreal and essentially anti-democratic, even if the King were popular.”

It is quite clear that it takes a lot of time and effort to build a democratic society. Are the Arab countries ready for the challenges of freedom?

“I think it would be a mistake to say that our people are not ready for democracy. It’s a wrong idea. Also, a democratic revolution does not happen in a day. I am not saying that tomorrow democracy will rule the Arab world, although as far as Morocco is concerned, it is in demand. Thus, the monarchy’s reaction to the rise of the February 20 Movement wasn’t democratic. In his speeches the king always says that we, Moroccans, should opt for a democratic path, but I wish he practiced what he preaches.

“In my view, Tunisia still has a chance for democracy, it’s easier to gain democratic changes there due to the smaller population. In Egypt everything is extremely complicated because it has the army, the Islamists, and a strong Christian minority. You might have heard that more than a week ago there was some unrest involving Muslims and Christians there. In Libya everything is also complicated due to the ongoing civil war. We saw the revolution in Iran. Now we are witnessing the dissent movement in Europe. In the US, too, protests have begun. In a word, the whole world is troubled. But until now the Arab countries have been separated from the rest of the world, because our countries were ruled by dictatorships instead of popular will. Now we can see changes happen.”

You have come to Ukraine to take part in an investigative journalism conference. Is it hard to do investigative journalism in your country?

“Of course, it is. For instance, a certain Moroccan woman journalist was assaulted by a secret police agent after she published an article about the disappearance of an opposition politician. Investigative journalism isn’t typically practiced in Morocco. For instance, we don’t have journalists who specialize in investigating economic problems. It is dangerous, besides, media workers cannot get hold of any documents or data on transgressions of the law. Ministers and civil servants will not comment on anything in the media.

“Another example: there are quite a lot of rich generals in Morocco. Of course, this is the result of corruption: they profit from fishing, which is a flourishing business in Morocco. Even if you are lucky to find out about the name of one of such individuals, or the name of the owner of a fishing company, nothing will come out of it. If, for instance, a soldier sees that his officer is corrupt, and makes this information public (and we have had several such cases), very often it is the soldier himself who ends up in the dock.

“We also have an example of a journalist who investigated corruption in the army ranks. He was an only journalist to have specific information and sources among the military. Now he is in prison. I, for one, don’t have any contacts there, and no one will talk to me. You can interpret and analyze, but it has always been complicated to find facts and their proof. However, it is much easier to carry out journalist investigations in the social sphere: it is not the army, or economy, or political and private scandals of government officials.

“In the early 2000s, there was a magazine in Morocco which published journalist investigations. Now the regime has closed it down. The Moroccan press is now going through hard times.”

How high is the likelihood of the Egyptian or Tunisian scenario for Morocco? What role do you think journalism plays in it?

“It’s hard to say… maybe, it will take more time. But in any case, it will mean a chaos, a revolt. It seems to me that the press cannot support radical actions, and call to attack administrative buildings and embassies.

“Over the recent 20 years Morocco has become a more liberal country than it was three decades ago. Small political parties have sprung up, which are less dependent on the regime in power. The independent press and Internet media are performing the function of the opposition, standing up for freedom of speech and defending prisoners of conscience.

“However, the situation with regional press, even if compared with that in Ukraine, is really deplorable, with as little as 1.3 copies per 1,000 people. This is the lowest index worldwide. In Egypt, for instance, this index is eight copies per person, while in Tunisia, even under the dictatorship, 12. But at any rate, it is journalists that oppose the lawlessness of the movers and shakers in politics and economy.”

By Ihor SAMOKYSH, The Day