Facing rising demands for human rights and the rule of law, the Moroccan state fostered new mass media and cultivated more positive images of the police, once the symbol of state repression, reinventing the relationship between citizen and state for a new era. Jonathan Smolin examines popular culture and mass media to understand the changing nature of authoritarianism in Morocco over the past two decades. Using neglected Arabic sources including crime tabloids, television movies, true-crime journalism, and police advertising, Smolin sheds new light on politics and popular culture in the Middle East and North Africa.
|Publisher:||Indiana University Press|
|Series:||Public Cultures of the Middle East and North Africa|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
Jonathan Smolin is Associate Professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Languages and Literatures at Dartmouth College. His publications include a translation of Abdelilah Hamdouchi's The Final Bet: A Modern Arabic Novel.
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Police, Crime, and Politics in Popular Culture
By Jonathan Smolin
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2013 Jonathan Smolin
All rights reserved.
Police on Trial
The Tabit Affair, Newspaper Sensationalism, and the End of the Years of Lead
On the morning of February 3, 1993, two female university students entered the first instance court of Anfa, the most affluent district of Casablanca, to report a shocking and gruesome crime. They told the public prosecutor that a man claiming to be a police commissioner abducted them from the city streets the day before, held them hostage in his apartment, and videotaped himself and an associate sexually assaulting them for more than three hours. The two women said that before he finally let them go, the man took down the information from their identity cards and threatened them with retribution if they told anyone what had happened. Scared for their safety and the shame and scandal the incident would bring on them and their families, the two women reluctantly decided to keep quiet about the brutal crime. That morning, however, as they walked in the streets near the university, they saw the same man following them in his car. Terrified, the two ran off and managed to escape. It was at this point that they decided to go to the authorities and press charges, regardless of the consequences.
After listening to these horrific details, the Anfa public prosecutor's office immediately began investigating the case and called in the Gendarmerie—a security force known for their independence from the police—for help. The two students led investigators to the apartment of the suspect, who turned out to be Hajj Mustapha Tabit, a well-known and powerful police commissioner in the industrial district of Aïn Sebaâ-Hay Mohammedi in Casablanca. As the confident Tabit watched, the Gendarmerie searched his apartment and quickly found evidence that not only confirmed the two women's claims, but also proved that they had been the most recent in a very long line of victims. Investigators confiscated 118 carefully labeled videotapes that contained footage of Tabit and his associates committing hundreds of sexual assaults. They also recovered notebooks and computer files in which Tabit kept detailed information on his victims, including their address, profession, birthdate, and marital status. Although the state would soon charge him with abducting and raping 518 women and minors over a period of three years, Tabit's own meticulous recordkeeping, together with the videotape evidence, put the real number of victims at approximately 1,600.
The Tabit Affair, as the case would become known, was a moment of deep rupture in the country's history and culture. As one newspaper headline explained at the time, it was "the crime that profoundly shook Moroccan society in all its foundations." The case, which was quickly labeled the country's "trial of the century," marked the first time that a high-ranking police official was arrested and brought to justice. As in other Arab regimes at the time, the police were the terrifying and brutal institution that operated above the law and maintained authoritarian rule in Morocco through repression. The public disgracing of a seemingly omnipotent commissioner deeply challenged and undermined the untouchable image of the police as an institution. Because the police were such a powerful symbol of the country's long decades of human rights abuses, the case served as a breathtaking spectacle for the entire public that the state was shifting its strategies of control away from physical violence and coercion. As one commentator poignantly explained after the commissioner's spectacular trial was concluded, the case represented "the fall of the Moroccan Berlin Wall and the end of fear."
The Tabit Affair was also the first time that the press, which had operated under heavy censorship since independence, was free to write about the police, an institution considered utterly taboo. During the trial, journalists seized on this opportunity and invented a radical new form of local representation: mass media sensationalism. Although the global media during the 1990s employed sensationalism and a new tabloid style as a way to increase profits by expanding audience share, it would be used for an entirely different purpose in Morocco. The sensational coverage of the Tabit Affair was a tool that greatly expanded the space for image production in the country, bringing the broader public together from across the social spectrum to participate in the mass media for the first time in the country's history. During the decades since independence, Morocco's mass media had catered only to the highly educated members of political organization. The new sensationalism, which played up the taboo-breaking, scandalous, and, above all, sexual nature of the case, served as a powerful means to attract the entire public, regardless of education, social background, or class. In the process, the press used the crimes of the commissioner to launch an assault on the omnipotent and terrifying image of the police throughout Moroccan society.
Journalists employed the new sensationalism not simply to draw both the elite and the non-elite public to the press. For the first time, the press served as a vehicle for articulating the demands of the broader public for fundamental change. After decades of repression, newspapers gave voice to public desires for the rule of law and respect for human rights. By granting the press unprecedented freedoms in covering the trial and attacking the police, the state clearly wanted to use the case to clear the air after decades of repression, symbolically announcing to the wider public that the Years of Lead were finally coming to an end. At the same time, the case signaled that the nature of authoritarianism in society was changing as the state began shifting its strategies for social control away from repression and fear of the police in order to maintain social cohesion. Nonetheless, during the trial, journalists, in voicing the public's demands for political change, created an unexpected crisis of authority for the state and came to represent a threat to its stability.
Once the trial was complete, the state would respond to this crisis by reining in the press and stifling the new sensationalism in an attempt to diffuse the threat that the new public and mass media represented. Censorship, however, was no longer sufficient for ensuring social cohesion in the new era. The trial demonstrated for the state how sensational media coverage of crime and punishment could be used as an effective tool for communicating messages of political and social change to the broadest possible audience, a lesson that the state would put to use in the months after the trial as it began fostering and interfacing with new forms of sensational media, such as crime tabloids. The Tabit Affair is the beginning of a pivotal yet unexplored process—the symbiosis of state and sensational mass media in order to transform the nature of authoritarianism in the country.
Breaking the Police Taboo
Despite the unprecedented media storm and wide-scale public fascination that the Tabit Affair would soon command, the scandal broke in a brief anonymous article, innocuously placed in a small box on the bottom of the front page of the Arabic daily al-Ittihad al-Ishtiraki (the Socialist Union). It appeared on February 6, 1993, and read as follows:
News is circulating urgently among security circles in greater Casablanca that one of the powerful officials in the regional police force of the Aïn Sebaâ-Hay Mohammedi district has been arrested because of his involvement in serious acts related to morals and honor, which the law punishes severely. The same news sources add that special authorities raided a house that the aforementioned official used to carry out his immoral crimes and seized evidence.
With a hesitant tone and lack of detail, the anonymous journalist uses vague language to report on what appear to be rumors. The article states that a high-ranking police official in the large industrial district of Casablanca, Aïn SebaâHay Mohammedi, is under arrest but never identifies him. The alleged crimes are "related to morals," but the journalist never explicitly says what they are, why authorities raided the house, or what evidence they collected. This vague unattributed news brief about an ongoing criminal investigation, buried on the bottom of the page, appears initially as an unlikely first step in transforming the nature of authoritarianism in a modern Arab country.
When it appeared in early 1993, however, this article was shocking. During the country's long decades of authoritarianism, newspaper reports on ongoing criminal investigations, and especially the police, were considered taboo. There was no censorship committee that read articles before they were printed, but the state monitored the press closely. The minister of the interior also served as minister of communication, effectively linking the country's security apparatus to media censorship. When newspapers and journalists discovered that they had crossed the line, it was only after an issue had been seized from the newsstands. This could mean financial disaster for a paper, since it would lose the revenues for an entire day's issue. It could also lead the police to shut the newspaper down for an undetermined period, as happened many times during the decades after independence. Moreover, publishing a rogue article about the police and their activities could have grave consequences not only for the newspaper but also for the journalist and the people around them. As one journalist wrote anonymously once the trial got underway,
Everyone knows that the authority of a police official makes him someone not to be discussed or openly commented on because his power is greater than that of the average citizen. Moreover, it is not even possible for the press in this country to write about his actions due to numerous considerations that make doing so dangerous for the author, newspaper, defenders of the party that publishes the newspaper, their families, and others. Everyone knows the many taboos in this country by practice, tradition, and experience—not only by law—just as everyone knows the consequences of breaking those taboos, by a little or a lot, such as arrests, fabricated charges, and trials without legal guarantees.
For their safety and the well-being of those around them, reporters paid close attention to the "red lines." A careless article about the police or an ongoing criminal investigation could lead to the closing of a newspaper or worse.
Although party newspapers could certainly be critical of government policies, this was with the goal of promoting the agenda of the sponsoring political organization. As long as they did not touch on any of the major taboos—such as the status of the monarchy, the ongoing dispute over the status of the Western Sahara, or the role of Islam in society—limited political contestation was tolerated. Nonetheless, the party press almost always disseminated an image of Morocco that corresponded with the security interests of the state. A key element of authoritarian culture in Morocco during the Years of Lead was that the printed press presented the palace and security forces as being in complete control of the country, regardless of the political angle of the newspaper or its criticisms of socioeconomic issues. During these decades, the dominant image of the country in the press, regardless of party affiliation, was one of safety and security, strong social and moral values, peaceful interpersonal relations, and modest but growing prosperity.
Some articles during this period might appear to contradict this rule. For example, it is possible to find the occasional news report about police arrests in the Moroccan press during the Years of Lead, with a small mug shot or picture of a criminal standing next to stolen goods. These appear to show dangerous individuals who had been threatening the safety of a given neighborhood or city until the police stepped in and brought them under control. A closer look reveals that these articles were written directly from police reports, which authorities had given the journalist. Sometimes these articles were nothing more than the text of the police report. This means that the press would occasionally collaborate with the police in printing crime news, showing how the authorities arrested dangerous criminals and restored order. Well-known journalists like Aïcha Mekki and Hadin Saghir published stylized reports on criminal trials but only after a verdict was announced and suspects were punished. Newspapers practically never published reports on crime during the Years of Lead before the culprit was arrested. The crime articles in the press before the early 1990s therefore show the strength of the police, rather than their weakness, and demonstrate how journalists cooperated with the state to reinforce this image to the public. Even when they printed these reports, the daily press was still disseminating an image of the police as wielding full control and authority over society, restoring order immediately after the presumably rare instances when the social bond was disturbed.
As in other authoritarian regimes, newspaper articles about unsolved violent crime and ongoing police investigations were highly sensitive. Publishing such an article would have been perceived as a direct challenge to the regime's legitimacy, strength, and ability to control the country. Printing this type of news would have been the equivalent of a political act, tantamount to claiming that the state and security services were weak, ineffective, and unable to control crime, a dangerous charge against a police force well known for repression, corruption, and systematic abuses of power. In addition to being closely monitored by the Ministry of the Interior and the police, journalists therefore practiced a form of self-censorship for their own survival that also reflected and helped disseminate the authoritarian nature of the state. The Moroccan press across the political spectrum—as well as the tightly controlled audiovisual mass media—expressed the control of the police and security services over society during the Years of Lead. It showed the public that there was little outlet to criticize or challenge the omnipotence of the police.
The authoritarianism of the Years of Lead, the country's strictly monitored mass media, and the power of the police that operated above the law and beyond criticism explain why the news brief from February 6, 1993, about the unnamed police commissioner was so shocking. The country had taken hesitant steps toward political and economic liberalization, starting in the late 1980s, thanks to international pressure on its human rights record, the end of the Cold War, and the desperate need for economic reform. Nonetheless, these changes had little effect on the lives of ordinary citizens and their relationship with the authoritarian state. The seemingly innocuous brief about the police commissioner, however, was a total break from the past. Not only did a newspaper print a front-page article about an ongoing criminal investigation, but the case itself centered on a high-level police commissioner who had been arrested for "immoral crimes." This hesitant report, buried at the bottom of the front page, therefore embodied a powerful nexus of taboos about a figure that symbolized decades of repression and represented a decisive step forward in the level of freedom of speech in the country. For the first time in memory, news appeared in the press that a police commissioner—not some low-level inspector—was under arrest. Even though the story broke in the Socialist Union—the main opposition newspaper at the time—and without clear attribution, it is certain that it came from a security official that gave permission to print the news, since the Ministry of the Interior tightly controlled the flow of all sensitive information to the press. This meant that the state wanted the information to go public. The brief anonymous article of February 6 therefore represented the beginning of a radical change in the public's relationship with the state and the police, as well as a striking improvement in freedom of expression in the media.
Despite the daring nature of the first article, news about the case did not appear again for another four days. Even though the brief from February 6 represented a tangible expansion in freedom of speech in the printed press, decades of fear, restrictions, and self-censorship made it impossible for journalists to throw caution to the wind. The unprecedented arrest embodied long-standing taboos, and journalists simply did not know how the red lines were shifting. Not surprisingly, the second article about the case, published on February 10, continued the same hesitation and lack of concrete detail, but it was certainly more daring than the first. With the headline "Transfer of Security Official to Criminal Chamber in Casablanca," it appeared in the Socialist Union and included significantly more information about the charges against the commissioner, although it still did not name him or identify its sources:
Judicial circles inside the court say that the charges against the commissioner are related to violating the public trust, rape, detaining a married woman, detention in order to commit rape, using violence against a public official, and incitement of depravity and rape. The same circles add that among the evidence present in the case are a collection of videocassettes on which the accused recorded his acts.
Excerpted from Moroccan Noir by Jonathan Smolin. Copyright © 2013 Jonathan Smolin. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents
Note on Transliteration, Translation, and Style
Introduction: State, Mass Media, and the New Moroccan Authoritarianism
1. Police on Trial: The Tabit Affair, Newspaper Sensationalism, and the End of the Years of Lead
2. "He Butchered His Wife Because of Witchcraft and Adultery": Crime Tabloids, Moral Panic, and the Remaking of the Moroccan Cop
3. Crime-Page Fiction: Moroccan True Crime and the New Independent Press
4. Prime-Time Cops: Blurring Police Fact and Fiction on Moroccan Television
5. The Moroccan "Serial Killer" and CSI: Casablanca
6. From Morocco's 9/11 to Community Policing: State Advertising and the New Citizen
Epilogue: "The Police Are at the Service of the People"
What People are Saying About This
Manifest[s] years of painstaking research that come to fruition at a time when its topiccultures and practices of policing in the Arab worldcould not be more urgent for students, scholars, and commentators. . . . Smolin fashions a new critical approach to the question of authoritarianism in the Arabic-speaking region.
A very timely and well-framed book . . . opens up a new frontier of research in the domain of media and state. . . . fluid and successful in analyzing one of the most powerful institutions in the country since independence even without being able to enter its secret forts.
[I]n every conceivable way a pioneering piece of research, one that is based on an enormous amount of digging in newspaper archives, and demanding the patience of Job in confronting any number of administrative hurdles and outright impediments. The resulting text is a triumph, one that combines a detailed account of the social contexts and profound changes in Moroccan society over the past half century with a series of astute analyses of examples of the sub-genre of police fiction. . . . Combining an analysis of the gradual liberalization of Moroccan government policy toward the press and publicity with astute discussions of reportage and fictional narratives both in print and on television, Smolin not only shows his critical acumen as a literature scholar but also offers a unique picture of social change in Morocco.