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Morocco's Benchemsi wins the Samir Kassir Press Freedom Award

By Imane Belhaj for Magharebia in Casablanca – 17/06/2007

Moroccan journalist Ahmed Reda Benchemsi, publications manager for the French-language weekly magazine Tel Quel and the Arabic-language weekly magazine Nichane, was selected two weeks ago for the Press Freedom Award, created in memory of the late Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir, assassinated in a car bombing in Beirut in 2005.

Benchemsi earned the 15,000-euro award for his piece entitled "The Cult of Personality", published in Tel Quel in July 2006. The award is conferred annually by the Delegation of the European Commission and the Samir Kassir Foundation.

In the first part of a two-part interview, Benchemsi talks about his award-winning article and press freedom in Morocco.

Magharebia: What does obtaining the Samir Kassir Press Freedom Award mean for a journalist who has several problems with the Moroccan authorities?

Ahmed RedaBenchemsi: I do not believe I have lasting problems with the authorities. Rather, from time to time problems occur that I am unable to make little of or to dismiss their value. I try to put them in the general context, which is that today Morocco is passing through a transitional stage, which we in Morocco call democratic transition. But for me, it is a transition from one point to another, from the stage of the regime of late King Hassan II, in which there was no democracy whatsoever but rather authoritarianism and more, to the current stage, which I consider to be a period of transformation. It is a transformation that, as in all countries of the world, involves tensions. Consequently, it is natural that the press is out in front. Thus, every time I confront these tensions, I am forced to defend myself and my rights, but not to the degree that I consider myself opposed to the authorities or one with many problems in this regard. Rather, I feel I’m performing my professional duty, and if the authorities have any problem, I am always prepared to confront it with them case by case. With regards to the award, I consider it a tribute to my professional work and I am very proud of it, as is the case for any journalist receiving an award.

Magharebia: The article "The Cult of Personality", for which you won the award, speaks of the tremendous love Moroccans have for their king. Do you have a specific problem with the freedom to express these particular feelings?

Benchemsi: For me, I do not consider what I dealt with in my report to be freedom of expression or love. If you read the report thoroughly, you will find that the matter is related to a major sociological concept and is complex, far-removed from the explanation you offered—and this is not the first time I have heard that explanation. Rather, it is the explanation offered by the authorities themselves. I consider it to be superficial, if you’ll excuse the expression. I dealt with the phenomenon with around 14 pages of analysis. I took as a starting point this very justification, [which is] it is only citizens’ spontaneous love for their king. And, actually, I confirm to you that I don’t have any problem with this spontaneous love. But the matter is not as you imagine, and I’ll offer one example out of hundreds I mentioned in my article on the cult of personality, which I invite you to read carefully. The people’s cheers you encounter in some city or place in fact appear spontaneous, but the reality says something else, which is that the pictures of the king and the crowds present at the site itself are brought by the authority’s servants, who are the ones dictating the slogans these persons utter… Thus, the matter is no longer spontaneous, but rather a sociological phenomenon worth analysing. And this is what I wanted to highlight in my article.

Magharebia: Despite the problems, do you think freedom of the press has advanced substantially in recent years?

Benchemsi: Certainly, and honestly it would be in bad faith for a person not to acknowledge this development. We have in fact made huge progress compared to what was published in the time of the late King Hassan II. But it is progress achieved thanks to professional struggle, whereas some analysts and observers believe it stems from the current king permitting substantial expansion of the margin of freedom. In truth, I do not agree with this proposition, because I feel that this freedom of expression is the result of professional struggle. The difference is that King Mohammed VI did not suppress this struggle and this is a major freedom, contrary to [that granted in the time of] his father.

Magharebia: Do you think that some journalists have exploited this freedom you are talking about, and this opportunity, in order to overstep certain boundaries just to arouse the reader and make a profit?

Benchemsi: I do not recognise transgressions in the field of freedom, for there is freedom or there is not. Freedom has legal controls; this is true. And the issue of profit and sale is something legitimate. A newspaper cannot be regarded as a struggle operation. Rather it is a company paying wages to its employees and its journalists, and paying taxes, its printing expenses and other [costs]… Anyway, there are all the controls that the company is subject to. But the question posed in actuality is, do we [publish] at any cost? I say no, because no one can disregard the reader. There are two sources of verdict: the market and the law. Trifling or erroneous news is quickly discovered and readers then become disinclined to buy this or that newspaper. As for news that is not in keeping with the legal controls, such as [that which] incites violence or hatred, the apparatus that must take action in this regard is the judiciary, but in a just and sound way, so as to treat fairly those who are in the right and to condemn those who break the law. But, regrettably, we find that the judiciary still is not independent in a manner that serves or keeps pace with the progress of the press. This is another component of the transitional phase that we are going through.

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