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Morocco's  Lmrabet case: victory for freedom of expression? Open in fullscreen

George Joffe

Morocco's Lmrabet case: victory for freedom of expression?

Demonstration in front of the parliament in Rabat, Morocco, to support Ali Lmrabet (Getty)

Date of publication: 3 August, 2015

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After a 34 day-long hunger strike, the Moroccan journalist, Ali Lmrabet, ended his ordeal and accepted medical treatment. But the road to freedom has been bumpy, writes George Joffe.

Morocco's Ali Lmrabet has finally won the battle against state censorship, ending a 34 day-long hunger strike outside the gates of the United Nations Headquarters in Geneva. 

He made his decision after the Moroccan Interior Minister Mohamed Hassad assured him that he would be issued a new passport "within three days" by the Moroccan consulate in Barcelona, where he had been living after being banned from working as a journalist in Morocco in 2005.

The minister also promised that once Lmrabet move to Morocco for three consecutive months at the same address, he would be issued a residence card and the identity documents he would need to begin to produce a satirical magazine there.

Ali Lmrabet started his hunger strike on June 24 after having spent two months in his hometown of Tetouan, hopelessly trying to obtain the documents needed to register his new publication. He had gone there from his current home in Barcelona.

In Barcelona, Lmrabet has been writing for the local and national Spanish press since being banned from working as a journalist in Morocco ten years ago.

The ban ended last April. Since then, Ali started his hunger strike in Geneva because, as he said, it was the last line of defence for citizens against the arbitrary behaviour of their own governments.

He was quite prepared, he told his support committee in Morocco in a Skype interview the previous day, to continue his hunger strike until death because it was the only way in which freedom of expression could be maintained in Morocco.

The committee itself, which is led by a former political prisoner, Ahmed Marzouki, had petitioned several Moroccan ministers, including the minister of justice, Mustapha Ramid, and the minister for human rights, Mohamed Aujjar, without success. Instead, they referred it to the Interior Ministry.

The minister’s intervention was the only way in which an increasingly embarrassing issue for Morocco’s Islamist-majority government could have been brought to an end. This comes after the Moroccan government expelled two senior members of Amnesty International 8 days earlier, thus tarnishing its human rights record.

     Ali started his hunger strike in Geneva because, as he said, it was the last line of defence for citizens against the arbitrary behaviour of their own governments.


Indeed, at about the same time, the US Department of State issued its annual human rights report on Morocco in 2014, highlighting the fact that the government there had continued to infringe freedoms of expression and the press, quite apart from tolerating a worsening human rights situation in general.

Why target Ali Lmrabet?

Ali Lmrabet is a significant and controversial figure in Moroccan journalism and has often been at the forefront of official hostility. Born in 1959 in a small village close to Al-Hoceima, he went to school in Tetouan, Northern Morocco, where he attended the Alliance Israelite Universelle.

Then, Ali went to university in France where he studied literature. When he returned to Morocco, he joined the diplomatic corps.

In 1997, he moved from diplomacy to journalism, joining La Vie Économique, one of the first publications seeking to exploit the era of new-found press freedom that King Hassan II’s constitutional reforms the year before had ushered in.

Even then, press freedom was more words than deeds. Everyone was aware of the "red lines" that comment could not cross without attracting the displeasure of the Royal Palace which, in any case, often controlled the new publications. La Vie Économique, for instance, was owned by a French friend of the king, Jean Louis Servan Schrieber.

Nonetheless, Ali’s publication nurtured a group of young radicals, such as Ahmed Benchemisti, later the founder of Tel Quel, and Aboubakr Jamai, the son of a veteran journalist, Khalid Jamai, who had edited the Istiqlali daily L’Opinion years before.

A year later, Ali Lmrabet moved to another new publication with a more radical agenda, Le Journal Hebdomadaire, organised by Aboubakr Jamai, with initial backing from circles close to the Royal Palace, although that was soon reversed.

     Press freedom was more words than deeds. Everyone was aware of the "red lines" that comment could not cross without attracting the displeasure of the Royal Palace.


In 1999, he founded Demain and a year later Demain Magazine as satirical publications, together with an Arabophone version, Douman.

Ali found out that satire is potentially dangerous when in 2001 he hinted that the king’s summer palace at Skhirat was for sale. That earned him a four month prison sentence and a 300 Euro fine. Then, in May 2003, he received a three year prison sentence and a 2,000 Euro fine for lampooning the Royal Palace, and his publications were temporarily banned.

He served nine months before receiving a royal pardon in January 2004. There were other provocations too; an interview with the Israeli premier in 1998 and another with a senior figure in the Polisario Front.

In fact, it was the Western Sahara issue that caused the latest crisis. In 2005, he was sued by a pro-royalist Sahraoui movement for describing the inhabitants of the Saharaoui camps at Tindouf in Algeria as "refugees" rather than as "captives" - the official line in Morocco.

A court then banned him from publishing in Morocco for ten years and he left for Spain instead. It will be an indication of the current state of press freedom in Morocco to see how long his new satirical publication will survive, particularly as one of his close collaborators is to be the cartoonist, Khalid Gueddar, who received a four year suspended sentence in 2004 for "lack of respect" for the royal family and the national flag!



George Joffe is a research fellow at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge and visiting professor of geography at Kings College, London, specialising in the Middle East.



Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

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