People shop in the Central Market of Tunis during the first days of Ramadan, Tunis, Tunisia, April 28, 2020.  © 2020 Mohamed Krit/Sipa via AP Images

It all started with harmless jokes. But because they chose humor to push back against the Coronavirus and lockdown-generated anxiety, a young Moroccan woman is now in prison, and a Tunisian woman could soon share her fate.

In Morocco, the story takes place in Merzouga, a small Saharan locality renowned for its postcard sand dunes. In early April, a young woman, perhaps to console herself for being locked a stone’s throw from a fabulous natural landscape, performed a comedy sketch. In a 15-second video posted on the social network TikTok, she imitates the “Caïda Houria,” a local security figure who gained notoriety from her unique way of scolding Moroccans who don’t comply with the mandatory lockdown. The imitation is well-executed and funny.

The authorities apparently didn’t laugh. A few days later, the young woman was arrested and sentenced to two months in prison, which she is currently serving in Errachidia. The main charge against her is that during the sketch, she wore a military uniform, in violation of article 382 of the penal code prohibiting “unauthorized public wearing of an official uniform.” The uniform she wore in the video belonged to a friend who is a member of local security forces.

Tunisian blogger Emna Chargui also wanted to share a smile when she reposted, on Facebook, a short text entitled “Sura Corona,” written and formatted, in a lighthearted spirit, in the manner of a Quranic sura. It backfired. On May 4, the judicial police summoned her. Two days later, no fewer than seven members of a public prosecutor’s office interrogated her. According to Chargui, one of them said: “There is no freedom of expression when it comes to religion.”

On May 6, Chargui was charged with “inciting hatred between religions through hostile means or violence,” under article 52 of the press freedom decree-law. She faces up to three years in prison.

In crisis situations like the Covid-19 pandemic, international law allows authorities to exceptionally prohibit some types of speech, the consequences of which could endanger public health. This doesn’t include jokes, unless you consider laughing a health hazard.