Morocco's independent press has grown bigger and bolder in recent years, challenging taboos against criticizing the monarchy and questioning Morocco's claim to Western Sahara. In March, journalists welcomed a promise by Minister of Communications Nabil Benabdallah to end imprisonment as a punishment for offenses under the kingdom's stringent press laws. The minister's pledge, however, did not translate into immediate progress. In fact, the media were quickly disabused of the idea that the country might increase press freedom when, shortly after Benabdallah's announcement, authorities filed a string of criminal defamation suits against journalists. One editor was handed an unprecedented 10-year ban on practicing journalism as a result of a defamation prosecution.
The Association of Relatives of Saharawi Victims of Repression, a previously unknown group whose spokesman is a government employee, sued independent journalist Ali Lmrabet for defamation after he wrote an article for the Madrid-based daily El Mundo that referred to the Saharawi people in the Algerian city of Tindouf as refugees, contradicting the Moroccan government's position that they are prisoners of the rebel Polisario Front. The Polisario, which are fighting for the independence of neighboring Western Sahara, operate mostly out of Algeria.
Although neither the association nor its spokesman, Ahmed Khier, was mentioned in the article, the criminal court convicted Lmrabet in April and barred him from working for any Moroccan publication for 10 years. The prosecution appealed, calling the sentence too lenient. In June, an appeals court ordered Lmrabet to publish the court's verdict daily for three weeks in the Arabic-language daily Ahdath Al Maghribiya, at his own expense.
No local journalist contacted by CPJ had heard of either The Association of Relatives of Saharawi Victims of Repression or Khier before January 2005, when Lmrabet applied for a license to launch a satirical weekly, Demain Libéré. Local journalists told CPJ that the organization might have been created or possibly revived in response to Lmrabet's application.
Lmrabet had been sentenced to three years in prison in 2003 for publishing cartoons lampooning the monarchy in the satirical weeklies Demain (in French) and Douman (in Arabic), both of which he edited. He had also published an interview with Abdullah Zaaza, a critic of the monarchy who advocated self-determination for the people of Western Sahara. Lmrabet received a royal pardon and was released from jail in January 2004 after serving nine months of his sentence.
But on January 18, 2005, shortly after Lmrabet applied for a license for Demain Libéré, the Ministry of Justice suspended the Oujda-based weeklies Al-Sharq and Al-Hayat Al-Maghribiya for three months in a move that local journalists saw as a warning to Lmrabet. The papers' editors had been jailed along with Lrambet in the 2003 press crackdown and later pardoned.
Authorities used the criminal defamation laws again in June against Abdelaziz Koukas, editor of the Arabic-language Al-Ousbouia Al-Jadida. He was charged with insulting the monarchy after the weekly ran a front-page interview with Nadia Yassine, the daughter of Abdelsalam Yassine, who is head of the banned Islamist group Al-Adl Wal Ihsan. The interview quoted Yassine as saying that the monarchy was the wrong form of government for Morocco. After Koukas was charged, the authorities stopped pursuing the case. Local journalists believed the authorities wanted to avoid further negative international attention in the wake of the Lmrabet case.
In August, Ahmed Benchemsi and Karim Boukhari, managing director and editor, respectively, of the independent weekly Tel Quel, were convicted of defamation and given two-month suspended prison sentences. The charges stemmed from a satirical article they had published earlier in the summer about Member of Parliament Hlima Assali, in which they referred to her former career as a dancer. In Arab culture, calling a woman a "dancer" could have negative connotations. Benchemsi, who was in the United States when the trial took place, told CPJ that the proceedings were highly irregular, with the judge announcing the verdict before the defense lawyer presented his case. The court ordered the magazine to pay one million dirhams (US$109,000) in damages to the MP. This would put a serious financial strain on any Moroccan publication. The journalists have appealed the verdict.
In late October, Tel Quel was convicted in another defamation suit, this time involving the head of a local child-relief agency, and ordered to pay 900,000 dirhams (US$96,000) in damages. The case stemmed from the paper's publication of a report that police were looking into the possible embezzlement of funds at the agency. The case led Benchemsi to declare that a judicial campaign was afoot against the newspaper. "The intention to kill us has become clear and unambiguous," he wrote, noting that other Moroccan newspapers that ran the same report had not faced charges.
Moroccan journalists told CPJ that journalists and editors working outside the major cities were subject to harassment by local officials. Brahim Fillali, publisher of the French- and Arabic-language biweekly Ici et Maintenant, in the southern town of Ourzazate, has been repeatedly summoned by police since publishing articles critical of local officials. Unidentified attackers also burned the newspaper's offices. Police have failed to investigate the attack, according to local journalists.
Local and foreign journalists covering Western Sahara are also subject to official harassment. The government tries to discourage coverage of the Polisario or of those advocating self-determination for Western Sahara. Journalists are strongly encouraged to travel with official government escorts. Local journalists told CPJ that during protests in May in the Saharan city of Laayoune, several local and foreign reporters were expelled by authorities or prevented from entering the city.