(Rabat) – Morocco should stop banning publications on the grounds that they “harm Islam,” Human Rights Watch said, in a letter today to Communication Minister Mustapha Khalfi.
Khalfi said on February 3, 2012, that he had banned the February 2 issue of the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur because it contains pictorial representations of God, which he said Moroccan law prohibits. Khalfi also banned a special issue of Le Pèlerin because it contained pictures depicting the Prophet Muhammad.
“This ban violates the right of Moroccans to read – or not to read – publications of their choosing, only months after they approved a new constitution that is supposed to guarantee freedom of expression and press freedom,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
Morocco’s new constitution, ratified by voters on July 1, 2011, states in article 28, “Press freedom is guaranteed and cannot be restricted by any form of prior censorship.” However, article 29 of the press code still empowers the communications minister to ban the import of publications that “inflict harm to the Islamic religion, the monarchical regime, [Morocco’s] territorial integrity or the respect due the King or the public order.”
The government has used this provision frequently in recent years to prohibit issues of foreign publications. As this case demonstrates, constitutional proclamations guaranteeing free expression are worth little until lawmakers revise the penal code and press code provisions that the government is using to restrict speech, Human Rights Watch said.
The issue of Le 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 through 18th centuries depicting Muhammad with his face hidden.
A member of the Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD), Khalfi became communication minister after the November 25 legislative elections in which his party won a plurality. “There is a decision by the United Nations that prohibits any infliction of harm on religions,” Khalfi was quoted as saying in the news media to justify the ban on the French weeklies.
However, Human Rights Watch said, this assertion misrepresents the international law governing freedom of expression, which does not allow governments to restrict speech merely because members of a faith may be offended by it.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Morocco has ratified, states in article 19(2), “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.” While the ICCPR does prohibit “advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence” it defines this prohibition in a narrow way that is not met in this case.