When hate speech sells newspapers

In Morocco, the battle between liberal and traditional values is being fought by proxy of the media. Said Essoulami, director of the Center for Media Freedom, discusses the Ksar el Kebir affair, in which the daily newspaper Al Massae stands accused of inciting mob violence over an alleged gay marriage ceremony.
A mob attacks the house where the alleged gay marriage took place. Insert: Al Massae's frontpage of the same day which used a stock picture of an unrelated transvestite. R.R.

It all started in November 2007, when the popular Moroccan daily Al Massae reported on a supposed homosexual marriage ceremony that according to the paper had taken place in the small town of Ksar el Kebir in the north of Morocco. Images shot at this private party were first posted on YouTube and then publicized by Al Massae.

Following that, thousands of demonstrators, charged through Ksar El Kebir to protest the alleged gay marriage ceremony.

Parallel to these events, a conflict arose between a number of Moroccan newspapers, with some of them condemning the role played by Al Massae, and others supporting it. The media attention also led to a court case and jail sentences against the people present at the supposed marriage. The party organizer was charged with 'sexual perversion' and the 'illegal sale of alcohol' on December 10, 2007 and sentenced to ten months in jail.

The announcement of the verdict fanned the flame in the war of interposed editorials waged by the French-language papers TelQuel and Le Journal Hebdomadaire against Al Massae.

The latest in the saga: Rachid Nini, director of Al Massae, was ordered to appear before the court on 22 February on charges of slander by order of the prosecutor's office in Ksar El Kebir.

APN spoke to Said Essoulami, Director of the Centre for Media Freedom in the Middle East and North Africa (CMF MENA), based in Casablanca.
APN: What are your comments on the exchange between certain papers set off by the Ksar el Kebir affair?

Said Essoulami:
"Al Massae has attacked everyone who has criticized the hate speech and incitemen to violence by the media during the Ksar El Kebir events. Rachid Nini, director of Al Massae, insulted Ali Amar, director of the Journal Hebdomadaire and Ahmed Benchemsi, director of TelQuel, as well as myself because CMF MENA was the first to publish a press release condemning the hateful behavior of Al Massae and two other Arabic-language dailies, Assabahia and Attajdid, against the homosexual minority, considering that it is a violation of their private life which puts them in danger.

"In the days that followed the publication by Al Massae and the two other papers, mobs of youths attacked the homes of several people, including that of the person who had supposedly organized the gay party. One person even had to take shelter at the police station. The rioters declared that they got their information from Al Massae.

"These events are very serious. Certain papers revert to hate speech and encourage violence in order to sell more. They don't care about the consequences of the material they publish. They think they're doing a big favor to society by protecting its values from any deviants.
APN: Does the conflict between the newspapers reflect the general tension Moroccan society has experienced over the past few years?

"The exchange between TelQuel and Al Massae is typical because each of them represents a political and ideological standpoint in the country. In broad terms, Al Massae defends the traditional values close to the Islamic standpoint and TelQuel the modern values close to the liberal left wing."

APN: What has this affair revealed about the ethics and professionalism of the Moroccan press?

S.E.: "
It acutely addresses the problem of how the media cover sexual, cultural, political and ideological diversities in our country. Journalists unconsciously use stereotypes and clichés to describe the life of those living with AIDS, African refugees, prostitutes, beggars and the homeless. Furthermore, they attack artists, writers and other groups whose opinions differ from the dominant ideas. Minorities are perceived as parasites, deviants or dangers to society. This representation manipulates a certain audience which is ready to externalize their frustrations through hatred, racism and violence.

"There has been no work done on the duty of journalists to respect the rights and freedoms of individuals, their private life, nor on the manner in which the media must treat subjects in relation to the diversity of our society.

"CMF MENA will, in cooperation with a dozen Moroccan publications, launch a campaign about the media and diversity. Something has to be done now before things go any further. Hate media can easily spring up to destabilize the country. The experiences in other countries serve as a warning to us."

This article was republished with permission from APN.