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Court Rules to Close Moroccan Cultural Organization, Causing Alarm

CASABLANCA—A Moroccan judge has ordered the dissolution of Racines, one of the country’s most active and well-regarded nongovernmental cultural organizations, after it was accused of airing political opinions.

The ruling against Racines, handed down in December, has caused consternation among those concerned with the freedom of expression and the freedom of nongovernmental associations to operate in Morocco.

“This dissolution acts as a sword of Damocles over the freedom of associations in Morocco,” Racines stated in a news release, “shedding light on the contradiction between the dominant discourse and the reality on the ground.”

Racines, whose name translates as Roots, was established in 2008 and is a key actor in the cultural field in Morocco. The organization collects and distributes data on cultural practices, lobbies for laws and policies to support artists and expand arts education, and oversees numerous projects—exhibitions, round tables, traveling theater productions that call for audience participation— to promote civic values through cultural engagement.

The association makes a point of working outside of the country’s big cities, traveling far and wide and looking for local partners. Its slogan is “Culture is the solution.”

In the fall of 2018, Racines hosted the latest episode of a popular YouTube series, “1 Dîner 2 Cons” (“One Dinner, Two Idiots”), at its offices in Casablanca. The show is the creation of Youssef El Mouedden and the journalist Amine Belghazi; each episode is a lively and often humorous discussion with about half a dozen guests gathered in an informal setting.

Since the show began in 2016, “1 Dîner 2 Cons” has been a rarity for its freedom of tone. It has also garnered a significant audience—the last episode had over half a million views.

That episode gathered Aadel Essaadani, general coordinator of Racines; the investigative journalist Omar Radi; the singer and rap artist Barry; the economist Rachid Aourraz; Jawad El Hamidi, an activist for the religious rights of minorities; and Ahmad Benchemsi, advocacy and communications director for Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division. The discussion included a critical analysis of one of King Mohammed VI’s official speeches, delivered in August.

The second edition of the General Assembly for Culture (Etats Generaux de la Culture) organized by Racines in 2016

In the motion filed against Racines, prosecutors argued that the association had “organized an activity including dialogue that constitutes a serious attack on state institutions and the Islamic religion, insulting public bodies and functionaries by accusing them of corruption.”

The motion accused Racines of airing political opinions “that are far removed from the objectives for which the organization was created.” It also objected to “the appearance of alcoholic drinks, and the insistence on showing them publicly.”

“This behavior,” the prosecutors argued, “goes against public morals and the objectives of the association.”

The prosecutors’ report disapprovingly cited several statements by guests of the show, such as the journalist Radi’s description of Morocco as “a police state, based on submission, based on ancient values that are contrary to democracy, to rights and freedom.”

Radi also criticized the Ministry of Interior. It was the governor of Casablanca-Anfa, an official within that ministry, who filed the complaint against Racines. A civil court in Casablanca issued its ruling in the case on December 26, ordering the organization to dissolve.

Racines has appealed the judgment and is currently waiting to appear in court. The association contends that the ruling is unfounded in several respects. First, it argues that Racines only hosted El Mouedden and Belghazi’s show and that the organization is neither the show’s creator nor its distributor.

An event Racines organized in Meknes in 2019. (Photo: Racines )

More broadly, Racines argues that freedom of expression is one of the pre-conditions of all its work, and that one of its goals is to encourage citizens to express themselves and to demand accountability.

This kind of legal judgment dissolving an established NGO is almost unheard of. But it comes as the space for dissent in Morocco, as in many Arab countries, has been shrinking ever since the Arab Spring. In the past year, protesters in Morocco’s northern Rif region have been handed prison sentences of as long as 20 years. Several journalists have also been jailed, largely for covering those protests. Human rights organizations complain of increased repression.

“They want to make an example of Racines,” says Essaadani, who’s one of the group’s founders, “and make others shut up.”

At stake, he and fellow founder Dounia Benslimane say, is the space for freedom of expression in the country, and the principles of democracy, accountability, and the right to discuss public policies.

Others agree. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have called on the Moroccan authorities to stop seeking the dissolution of Racines. PEN America, a nonprofit group that advocates for freedom of expression, issued a statement calling the dissolution order “an unwarranted and unjust attack on a vitally important cultural organization.”

A petition of support for Racines has been signed by a long list of academics, artists and activists, from Morocco and many other countries.

Essaadani and Benslimane say regardless of the court’s final verdict they will find ways to continue their work—but if the dissolution stands, it will be undoubtedly have a chilling effect on artists, activists and cultural associations, who already feel their space to express themselves and engage the public is shrinking.


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