Minister of Communication
Dear Mr. Khalfi:
Human Rights Watch wishes to convey its congratulations on your appointment as minister of communications.
We also are addressing to you this public letter to protest your decision on February 3 to ban issues of two French weeklies, Le Nouvel Observateur and Le Pèlerin, on the grounds that the former contains a pictorial representation of God and the latter a representation of the Prophet Muhammad.
The February 2, 2012 issue of the Nouvel Observateur contains an image taken from the animated film Persepolis showing the heroine talking to God depicted as a white-bearded man. Le Pèlerin’s special issue entitled “50 Keys for Understanding Islam” reproduced several Turkish and Persian miniature paintings from the 16th – 18th centuries showing Muhammad with his face hidden.
We were particularly struck to read the statements attributed to you in news reports of February 3, that
This issue of Le Nouvel Observateur was banned because it contains a representation of God, something that Moroccan law does not allow. This decision has nothing to do with freedom of expression. The magazine can be distributed if it removes the drawing representing God. There is a decision by the United Nations that prohibits any infliction of harm on religions. The ministry is preparing a program to communicate with French editors in order to avoid such counter-productive incidents.
In fact, representations of such images are very much a matter of free expression; moreover, the assertion that the U.N. “prohibits any infliction of harm on religions” completely misrepresents the narrow restrictions on speech that international law permits.
The key articulation of to the right to freedom of expression in international law is found in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Morocco has ratified. Article 19(2) states:
Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.
Article 19(3) recognizes that this right may be subject to certain restrictions; for example, Article 20(2) prohibits “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.”
While some Muslims may take offense at any pictorial representations of God or Muhammad, the publication of such images hardly constitute “incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence” – the standard set forth by article 20.
The U.N. Human Rights Committee’s General Comment on article 20, as well as other authoritative jurisprudence on the ICCPR, makes clear that restricting expression on article 20 grounds may be done only on grounds that are narrow and set forth in law.
The Committee, in its General Comment on ICCPR’s article 19, wrote in 2011 that the fact that a speech act might offend some members of a religious group does not meet these conditions:
Prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the Covenant, except in the specific circumstances envisaged in article 20, paragraph 2, of the Covenant.
The UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief and the special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, xenophobia and related intolerance said in a joint declaration in October 2008:
Defamation of religions may offend people and hurt their religious feelings but it does not necessarily or at least directly result in a violation of their rights, including their right to freedom of religion. Freedom of religion primarily confers a right to act in accordance with one's religion but does not bestow a right for believers to have their religion itself protected from all adverse comment.
Since March 2011, both the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly have adopted a consensus resolution entitled “Combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of, and discrimination, incitement to violence, and violence against persons based on religion or belief.” This resolution notably does not mention restricting freedom of expression, except to urge criminalizing “incitement to imminent violence based on religion or belief.” This resolution expresses a global consensus, and Morocco supported it.
Your ban on Le Nouvel Observateur and Le Pèlerin, violates the right of Moroccans to read – or not to read -- publications of their choosing, only months after they approved a new constitution that enshrines the right of freedom of expression and press freedom, notably in article 28, which states, “Press freedom is guaranteed and cannot be restricted by any form of prior censorship.”
You reportedly stated that Moroccan law forbids representations of God. We wish to know if the law to which you refer is article 29 of the press code, which states:
The introduction into Morocco of newspapers or publications whether periodical or not, printed outside of Morocco, can be prohibited by a decision taken by the minister of communication, a decision that the minister must explain, when the said publications inflict harm to the Islamic religion, the monarchical regime, [Morocco’s] territorial integrity or the respect due the King or the public order.
If this law is the basis for your ban on the issues of Le Nouvel Observateur and Le Pèlerin, then this decision provides yet one more illustration why the broad grounds for censorship provided by this law are incompatible with Morocco’s obligations under international law to protect the right to freedom of expression.
We urge you during your tenure as minister to review this and the many other Moroccan laws that restrict freedom of expression and of the press, and strive to abolish them or revise them so that they are in harmony with Morocco’s obligations under international human rights law and with the provisions of Morocco’s 2011 constitution.
Finally, we urge you also to rescind last week’s ban on Le Nouvel Observateur and Le Pèlerin and to refrain in the future from prohibiting publications in cases, like the present one, where the narrow conditions for restricting speech under international law simply do not apply.
We welcome your comments on this and on any other matter. Thank you for your consideration.
Middle East and North Africa Division
Human Rights Watch