Magazine banned over religious jokes

New York, December 22, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by the banning in Morocco of an independent magazine and the charges brought against its director and a reporter for publishing an article analyzing popular jokes about religion, sex, and politics.
Driss Ksikes, the publisher and director of the weekly magazine Nichane, and reporter Sanaa al-Aji, were charged with denigrating Islam under Article 41 of the Press and Publication Law 2002. The charges stem from a 10-page article examining how popular humor reflects issues in society.

“We tried to understand society through jokes,” Ksikes told CPJ. “What we did just reflects what is there in society.”

Ksikes and al-Aji face three to five years in prison and fines ranging from 10,000 to 100,000 dirhams (US$1,100 to 11,000) under the press law. Their trial has been set for January 8.
“We understand that Nichane may have offended people by publishing these jokes,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “But that cannot be a justification for banning a magazine and threatening its journalists with jail. We call on the Prime Minister to rescind the ban and on the legal authorities to halt the prosecution at once.”

Nichane was banned by Prime Minister Driss Jettou late on December 20. Authorities informed the publication of the order early the following morning. Its Web site has also been closed. Nabil Benabdellah, minister of communication, said at a press conference that Nichane would remain shuttered until the outcome of the trial, the state news agency Maghreb Arabe Presse reported. The news agency quoted Benabdellah saying the article “harm[s] the fundamental values of the Moroccan society, all the more reason that these values constitute the basis of cohesion between the various components of the Moroccan people.”
The Arabic-language magazine is a sister publication of the independent French-language weekly TelQuel. Both magazines are owned by the TelQuel Group headed by Ahmed Reda Benchemsi.

Benchemsi told CPJ that staff at Nichane had received death threats via phone and e-mail since the government made the charges against the publication. He said that the religious jokes involved God, angels and prophets as characters, but did not make fun of them. He added that Nichane staff did not write any of the jokes.

The magazine apologized on public television for any offense caused. “We were not trying to offend any of our Muslim readers, and if anyone thought so then we strongly apologize, especially because we have a respectful relationship with our readers,” the magazine said in a statement.

In February, another weekly came under fire for offending religious beliefs. Le Journal Hebdomadaire accused the authorities of orchestrating protests against it for publishing a photograph of a French newspaper showing one of the controversial Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that triggered widespread anger in the Muslim world.