The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is deeply concerned about the sharp erosion of press freedom in Morocco in recent months, including the arrest and criminal prosecutions of newspaper editors and the closure of independent publications. These actions contravene the internationally guaranteed right to freedom of expression and continue to undermine Morocco's standing as a country that permits open media.
Since May 2003, Moroccan authorities have detained or imprisoned five journalists in direct response to news or opinions published in their newspapers. Two of the journalists--editors Ali Lmrabet and Mohammed al-Herd--remain in jail, placing Morocco in the dubious company of Tunisia as the only countries in the Arab world that currently imprison journalists.
Lmrabet, the owner and editor of two weeklies, the French-language Demain and its Arabic-language sister publication, Douman, was jailed on May 21 after a court in the capital, Rabat, found him guilty of "insulting the king," "undermining the monarchy," and "challenging the territorial integrity of the state." He was sentenced to four years (later reduce on appeal to three years) in prison and fined 20,000 Moroccan dirhams (US$2,000). The court also ordered the two weeklies closed. Lmrabet's conviction stemmed from articles and cartoons published in the two magazines, including an interview with Abdullah Zaazaa, an opponent of Morocco's monarchy who called for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara; a satirical photomontage that included a photo from Your Majesty's wedding; an article about the royal court's finances; and a cartoon that criticized public displays of reverence to the monarchy. Lmrabet recently staged a 50-day hunger strike to protest the legal case against him.
Another editor, Mohammed al-Herd of the Oujda-based weekly newspaper Al-Sharq, also remains in prison. Moroccan authorities detained al-Herd on June 12 under Morocco's new anti-terrorism law and later charged him with "extolling the actions that comprise terrorism." Al-Sharq editor Abdel Majid Ben Taher and Mustapha Qashnini, editor of the Oujda-based weekly Al-Hayat Al-Maghribiya, were also taken into custody and similarly charged but have since been released pending the outcome of their trial. The charges against all three men came in response to an article published in the May 5-20 edition of Al-Hayat Al-Maghribiya by an Islamist activist and was reprinted on June 5 in Al-Sharq. In the article, the author discussed the history of the Islamist movement in Morocco and its alleged relationship with the country's intelligence services. If convicted, all three face between two and six years in prison.
As further evidence of the Moroccan government's effort to crack down on the press, CPJ is investigating a Rabat court's decision last week to hand down a one-year suspended prison sentence to Mustafa Alaoui, editor of the weekly Al-Ousboua and to ban the publication for three months. According to CPJ sources, Alaoui was detained on June 5 under the anti-terrorism law for publishing a communiqué issued by an Islamist group that claimed responsibility for some of the multiple suicide bombings in Casablanca on May 16.
These arrests and this censorship constitute flagrant violations of internationally accepted norms for press freedom. While we recognize the concerns of the Moroccan government in the wake of the May terrorist attacks in Casablanca, we believe that restricting media discourse denies the public of valuable news and information it needs to make informed decisions and will therefore create more instability.
In the past, Your Majesty has described yourself as a "friend and admirer" of the press. Last year, when noting the accomplishments of your reign, you said that you had "guaranteed the right to information [in Morocco] through the consolidation of the freedom of the press."
The recent restrictions imposed on Moroccan media provide the perfect moment to demonstrate your commitment to these ideals. As an independent organization of journalists dedicated to defending press freedom worldwide, CPJ calls on Your Majesty to adopt the following recommendations aimed at bringing Morocco's practices in line with international standards for a free press:
- Publicly reiterate your support to the right of journalists to report news and opinion without state reprisal and deplore the imprisonment of journalists for carrying out their professional duties;
- Take all measures within your power to ensure the immediate release of Ali Lmrabet and Mohammed al-Herd and that all state criminal prosecutions of journalists stemming from the publication of news and opinion are dismissed; and
- End state censorship of newspapers and other publications and see to it that banned newspapers are allowed to resume publishing without further hindrance. Thank you for your attention to these important matters.
Ann K. Cooper