Is creating a Facebook profile of a famous entity a crime? Although it's been done to nearly every major celebrity (a quick search for “George W. Bush” garners over 500 results), when Fouad Mourtada chose to mimic Prince Moulay Rachid of Morocco, he was committing a serious crime.
As Sami Ben Gharbia reported on Global Voices Advocacy last week, Mourtada was arrested on February 5 after Moroccan authorities discovered his false Facebook profile of the member of the royal family. And on February 22, he was sentenced to three years in prison (and had to pay a $1,000 fine). Bloggers in Morocco and around the world were furious.
Laila Lalami, who also wrote an opinion piece on Mourtada at The Nation, blogged that she “hoped cooler heads [would] prevail” at the trial. Myrtus, who joined bloggers who went on strike for Mourtada, said:
The verdict is out: A giant leap backwards for you Morocco, I hope you're happy with yourself!
I am a second generation Moroccan-Dutch citizen, and I am a traditionalist. I've always been proud of my Moroccan roots and I've always respected Morocco's constitutional monarchy as an integral part of our national unity and a great source of pride, and held it in high regard. This is the first time in my life that I can honestly say, that sense of pride has been diminished. I feel only sadness and loss of hope with regards to Morocco.
Four Continents was appalled as well, saying:
If you value free speech…then check this out and then pass on the news. Facebook-impersonation shouldn't be a crime.
Also, Le Journal Hebdo has its website blocked again and is facing more fines for something they published about Western Sahara. I don't have details, but Scarlett's been in touch with them and I'll link to details if she posts any.
One commenter found the legal aspect of the case intriguing:
Though most invasion-of-privacy law does come from civil actions rather than criminal, I think criminal statutes protecting privacy draw pretty heavily on civil tort concepts.
In particular, the tort of “misappropriation of persona” (protecting name and likeness) does not require any monetary benefit on the part of the invader, mooting a defense of noncommercial motive.
With regard to First Amendment rights, though, it's usually the press violating someone's privacy, and there is strong precedent for public officials and public figures being exempt from privacy protections in the face of the media's First Amendment privilege.
By contrast, framing it as a matter of free speech makes it one individual against another, and you lose the compelling public interest of an unfettered news media. I'm not sure if the exemption for public officials and public figures would apply as strongly in this context. Unfortunate situation for the guy, but an interesting legal question.
Reb, who is researching the Moroccan blogoma, said in her blog:
I was saddened to hear that Fouad was sentenced to 3 years despite the campaign waged by Moroccan bloggers. I know Fouad is going to prison and these words will not console his friends and family but the bloggers that spoke up on his behalf should not lose faith. The efforts of the blogoma were not invisible to the local or international press and this movement will inspire more people to speak up for others with marginalized voices or for causes in which they believe. My best wishes for Fouad and his mother.
Outside of Morocco, The Sudanese Thinker was just as shocked as any Moroccan blogger:
Someone please tell me this isn’t real.
Andrew Brehm commented:
My take is that the Moroccon government simply didn’t take into account that it was a joke and just saw someone trying to impersonate the prince. Three years is mild punishment for what they thought they saw.
However, three years (or any prison term) is unacceptable for a joke, no matter how tasteless one might think it is.
So while I am not worried about Morocco’s justice system because of it, I am worried about this single example. I think they made a mistake and he should be set free. (The fine, on the other hand, I think is justifiable.)
Another commenter, Mike responded:
Andrew commented “So while I am not worried about Morocco’s justice system because of it, “…. You shoudl [sic] be. This is a system that routinely allows and abuse of detainees before trial. Once you get to trial then it’s about who you know and not what you know.
From Jordan, The Black Iris is also outraged:
I’ve been following this story since early February and waiting to see if and when Mourtada would be charged by the Moroccan government for creating a Facebook profile of Morocco’s Crown Prince. I had initially thought he would eventually be let go for such a silly thing, since it wasn’t like he was blogging about political issues. It was, as he said, a little joke and the account was deleted. But it seems that in Morocco, just like Jordan, it is really, really easy to harm the dignity of the state. Imagine three years of your life completely taken away from you for this ‘crime’. My prayers are with you Mourtada.
For more information on Mourtada's case, Lydia Beyoud has a roundup of French-language Moroccan blogs, Gawker has an interesting report, the Help Fouad website is constantly being updated, and Reuters is tracking the story. And of course, check Global Voices Advocacy for updates.