Maghreb Voices – Blogger El Bashir Hazzam and the Strange Destiny of Free Speech in Morocco, Part II

Maghreb Voices – Blogger El Bashir Hazzam and the Strange Destiny of Free Speech in Morocco, Part II

?I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.?

Evelyn Beatrice Hall

Free At Last

El Bashir Hazzam was arrested in Taghjijt, Morocco on December 7, 2009, and sentenced to four months in jail for blogging about a student demonstration. The Facebook group set up by the Association of Moroccan Bloggers to build global solidarity for Hazzam quickly grew to more than 2,500 members, and human rights groups and free speech advocates have been delivering support in droves.

The Association of Moroccan Bloggers is happy to report that on Monday, February 8, El Bashir’s sentence was commuted from four to two months, counting the two months already served, and that he was released that evening. The three student detainees have also been released and Boukhou’s sentence has been reduced from 12 to eight months. (To read the background of this story see Part I of this article.)

On Vigilance . . .

When discussing the case of Hazzam with friends here in Canada the response tends to run along these lines: That’s terrible! But isn’t that kind of thing happening all over the world? We Canadians should really be grateful.

Yes, we should be grateful, but with caution. To assume that our freedoms sprouted up like wildflowers and that we need simply enjoy them is an insult to the memories of people like Louis Riel, Nellie McClung, and Tommy Douglas, who braved danger, want, and humiliation to create lasting positive change in a society whose leaders didn’t necessarily want it.

So yes, when we hear that for blogging about a student demonstration El Bashir Hazzam was given a four-month sentence (during which he had to join a long queue to share one toilet with 79 other prisoners, subsisted on food that was both poor and inadequate, and sometimes had to sleep on a bare floor), yes, I feel gratitude. And also a sense of urgency.

The compulsion to silence fellow human beings is a natural tendency of those in power, a tendency that will keep emerging unless we’re wary in guarding against it.

. . . and Solidarity . . .

Part of our vigilance must include manifesting solidarity with those who are being robbed of their freedoms, because it won’t be long before the thieves will be coming after our freedoms.

In recent years Morocco has appeared to be making strides toward democracy and social justice, and activists there have wisely seized on the potentials of digital media to help bring about change. But the potency of the Internet as a tool for disseminating knowledge has been seen as a threat by a government with a low tolerance for the kind of dissent essential to societies negotiating their own political terms.

In a letter to Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, The Committee to Protect Journalists, an organization promoting freedom of the press internationally, made this statement: ?International human rights groups praised Morocco before your ascension to the throne for having made significant steps toward the rule of law. Unfortunately, just a few years later it was among the 10 nations worldwide where press freedom had deteriorated the most.?

Hazzam’s arrest came on the crest of a wave of crackdowns on independent journalists, publications, and bloggers in Morocco. A quick search uncovers a host of extreme reactions to the media’s distribution of information, much of this rancour in response to incidents of which the world might not have taken notice had reports of them not drawn such swift and furious reactions from authorities.

Right now it isn’t the principle of free speech that seems to matter to this government so much as the illusion that freedom of speech is being upheld. Citizens can speak freely as long as they reflect the official stance of the government on all issues and remain silent regarding corruption and threats to civil liberties.

. . . and Hope

As old and ingrained as this deterioration of press freedom may be, it may yet be among the growing pains of a new order. If all Moroccans believed that their country was doomed there would be no bloggers like Hazzam bravely exercising their inherent right to free speech, and neither would there be hoards of activists giving passionately of their time and strength to defend them.

The recent decision to reduce Hazzam’s sentence is part of a growing body of evidence that Morocco is tending toward becoming a just society. Cynics may scoff, but there are enough citizens there who are fervent enough about the protection of human rights (and enough people outside their country siding with them) that they stand a very good chance of prevailing.

After El Bashir Hazzam was released the name of the Facebook group ?Free Moroccan Blogger El Bachir Hazzam? was changed to Free Moroccan Bloggers. The group continues to welcome support for bloggers who remain in prison in Morocco and to raise awareness for violations of freedom of speech in the country.

Maghreb Voices celebrates the art, culture, and struggles of the peoples of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, in northern Africa.

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