Tel Quel Threatened

An editorial in the Los Angeles Times a couple of weeks ago alerted me to the troubles facing Tel Quel magazine, its editor-in-chief, Ahmed R. Benchemsi, and its news director, Karim Boukhari. The Times‘ editorial is no longer available online, unfortunately, but it detailed a bizarre turn of events that could have only taken place in Al-Maghrib Al-Habib.

Let me get to the facts. In one of its summer issues, the magazine ran a blind item by Karim Boukhari poking fun at an unnamed Member of Parliament, of an unnamed political party, saying that she had gotten into a verbal fight with a colleague and sneered that the latter “ate escargots.” (I can’t help but mention, en passant, that only in Morocco is being accused of eating escargots an insult.)

A week later, Karim Boukhari posted another blind item about the same person, this time giving her the pseudonym of ‘Asmaa’ and saying that she used to earn a living as a ‘cheikha’ (which translates, roughly, as a ‘bar dancer’.) He repeated the escargots anecdote, said that there was nothing wrong with having worked as a ‘cheikha,’ and ended the item with “Asmaa, on t’aime!” (You don’t need me to translate that part, do you?)

Note that the MP was never named or described in ways that could have identified her. So the story should have ended there. Except it didn’t. In late July, charges of libel were brought against the magazine, its editor in chief, and its news director, by Member of Parliament Hlima Assali. The two journalists were asked to appear in court on August 8 (traditionally a period of rest for the courts). The editor-in-chief sent his lawyer to ask for a postponement, since he was planning a visit to the U.S. at that time and through the end of the month.

The magistrate did grant a postponement. But only for a week. Then, on August 15, in the absence of the editor-in-chief, the news director, and their lawyers, the judge closed the proceedings and found for the plaintiff, slapping the magazine with punitive damages of 1 million dirhams, plus a fine of 25.000 dirhams and a suspended jail sentence of two months for each of the journalists.

Some of you may not be familiar with Tel Quel, so let me put this in clear terms: Tel Quel is the best thing that’s happened to the Moroccan press in the last five years. It has broken many unspoken rules of self-censorship with its coverage of, among other things, the king’s salary, the horrific border crossings of migrants, the incursions of Islamists on all aspects of the culture, the sex lives of Moroccans, the independence demonstrations in the Sahara, and so on. The style is occasionally sensationalistic, but, alone among other publications, the magazine has had the courage to demand that the women who were jailed after the Agadir sex scandal should be freed.

All this is a long way of saying that if you care for freedom of the press, if you think that people should have the right to be present at their own trial, if you think that a blind item can’t serve as the basis of a libel suit, if you think that such a suit shouldn’t end in a fine of $100,000 in a country where the average salary is less than $300, then please support Tel Quel by signing the online petition.