Nichane: Update

Last month, I mentioned that the magazine Nichane had been banned, and its editor-in-chief and one of its journalists put on trial, all for a cover story on jokes deemed “insulting to Islam.” The case went to court in Casablanca on January 8th, and the verdict was pronounced yesterday: Three years’ probation for editor Driss Ksikes and journalist Sanaa Al Aji, a fine of 80,000 dirhams each, and a punitive ban of two months, meaning that the magazine would only be back on newsstands at the end of February.

This is very harsh. And it’s frightening that, compared with the verdict the prosecution was seeking — five years’ prison time; complete ban of the publication; ban of its journalists from practicing their profession — it sounds downright magnanimous. Still, the verdict is yet another wake-up call for those who thought that the tangible progress we witnessed in terms of press freedom over the last few years was a permanent gain. This hastily prosecuted case is a strong signal that there are still “red lines” (Islam, the king, the Sahara question) that cannot be crossed.

The magazine plans to appeal, but in the meantime the verdict is a Sword of Damocles hanging over the journalists’ heads. Any false step, any perceived insult, and all that needs to happen is for someone to sue them before they’ll find themselves at risk of firm prison time. Perhaps that’s exactly what the government wanted–putting them, and all the other journalists, on notice. In addition, the government gets to play the card of “protector of Islam,” thus defeating religious conservatives at their own game. But this is a dangerous game, because conservatives will only escalate the situation, attacking anything they perceive as offensive. It’s a sad day.

Related: Twenty Moroccan writers and intellectuals have signed a petition in support of Nichane; Fadoua Benaich and Jesse Sage have an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times; popular blogger Larbi continues to offer a forum for discussing the issue.