What Freedom of Speech?

I have not seen much attention in the English-language press to the trouble that Rachid Niny, one of Morocco’s most popular columnists, finds himself in at the moment. The facts of the case, as far as I can tell, are that Niny alleged in one of his articles that a prosecutor in Qsar el Kebir attended a gay wedding held in the house of a trafficker (there was no wedding, but a video purporting to show one landed on YouTube and created quite a ruckus.) The town’s four prosecutors took Niny to court in the capital of Rabat and the judge found Niny guilty of slander, fining him 6 million Dirhams (approximately $850,000.)

All right. Time to pick your jaw off the floor.

This the largest fine ever in the history of libel judgments in Morocco. Undoubtedly, Niny ought not to have printed something for which he did not have proof. But let’s face it: newspapers in Morocco indulge in rumors and blind items on a daily basis. This was a blind item, not a direct claim. What makes this affair murkier is that Niny was recently mugged at the train station in Rabat, and robbed of his cell phone and laptop. Coincidence? Of course not. In addition, Judge Alaoui, who presided over this case, is the same judge who found against Boubker Jamai last year, against the magazine Nichane, and several other journalists. The judgment is clearly meant to crush Niny’s newspaper, Al Massae, which has become the largest in Morocco.

(Oh, and don’t even get me started on why these prosecutors think it an insult to be called gay.)

I am baffled as to the thinking here: What is the point of it? Niny will simply leave the country, and go write for a magazine that is bigger and more powerful than Al Massae. I myself don’t like his columns, except the satirical ones, and I think he is be a bit too cavalier with personal freedoms. The irony now is that he will need the help of all those freedom of expression activists he wasn’t always so keen on. I hope they prevail, and that he will be able to continue to write and work in his own country.