May 17, 2000
His Excellency Abderrahamane Youssoufi
Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Morocco
VIA FAX: 212.7.769.995
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is gravely concerned about government restrictions on press freedom in Morocco this year. During the past four months, Moroccan authorities have taken several punitive measures against the press, including the censorship of newspapers and the criminal prosecution of journalists.
Most recently, on April 26, a Moroccan court convicted Mustafa Alaoui, editor of the Arabic-language weekly Al-Ousbou, of libeling Foreign Minister Muhammad Ben Aissa, who was formerly Morocco’s ambassador to the United States.
The case against Alaoui stemmed from an investigative article titled “The House That’s There: Company with Capital of 500 Dirhams Sells Morocco a House worth Five Million,” which appeared in a December, 1999, edition of Al-Ousbou. In the article, Alaoui alleged that in 1996, Ben Aissa had arranged for the government to purchase a new ambassadorial residence in Washington through a shady middle company which charged more than twice the home’s appraised property value.
Based on the article, Alaoui was sentenced to three months in prison and ordered to pay crippling fines and compensation to Ben Aissa, totaling over US$100,000. The court subsequently banned him from practicing journalism for a period of three years. Alaoui remains free pending the outcome of his appeal. However, the professional ban took effect immediately.
One day after Alaoui’s conviction, a court convicted Khaled Meshbal, editor of the weekly Al-Shamal, of libeling Ben Aissa in a February 14 article about the same real estate scandal. Meshbal was given a six-month suspended prison sentence and banned from practicing journalism for one year. He was also ordered to pay fines and compensation of about US$12,000.
While CPJ recognizes the right of individuals to file libel suits to protect their reputations, we do not believe that public figures should be allowed to wield libel statutes in order to shield themselves from public scrutiny. Moreover, it is CPJ’s position that journalists should never face criminal prosecution or be deprived of their right to work because of what they publish. Such practices violate the most fundamental norms for press freedom and stifle the free debate that is essential in a democratic society.
The recent court cases against Alaoui and Meshbal have occurred at a time when there is a sharp decline in press freedom in Morocco. Since February, CPJ has documented the following cases of government interference with the press:
On February 15, Moroccan authorities blocked distribution of the magazine Jeune Afrique-L’Intelligent, in apparent response to its recent publication of a letter from a Moroccan expatriate living in Canada that questioned King Muhammad VI’s commitment to political reform.
On March 4, Moroccan censors banned the French daily Le Figaro for one day, apparently in response to an article in that day’s issue citing a book that alleged the complicity of former King Hassan II in the 1965 disappearance of Moroccan opposition leader Mehdi Ben Barka.
On April 15, authorities banned distribution of the weekly sister newspapers Le Journal and Al-Sahiffa, both of which are printed in France. According to a Ministry of Communications statement issued later that day, the action was taken because of an article in that week’s issue of Le Journal about the continuing dispute over the Western Sahara. The article was written by Le Journal director Aboubakr Jamai, based on his recent interview with Muhammad Abdelaziz, leader of the Polisario Front rebel movement, which has been fighting for the territory’s independence since the 1970s. The ministry’s statement said that the two publications had been banned because of “excesses in [their] editorial line concerning the question of Morocco’s territorial integrity,” along with their alleged “collusion with foreign interests.”
On April 17, the board of directors of the state-controlled television station 2M (headed by Communications Minister Mohamed Larbi Messari), dismissed three employeesÑdirector general Larbi Belarabi, program director Mustafa Melouk, and editor Muhammad MamadÑfor making an unspecified “professional error” in an April 14 newscast. The “error” is widely believed to have been mentioning Le Journal‘s forthcoming interview with Mohamed Abdelaziz.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, a nonpartisan organization of journalists dedicated to defending press freedom worldwide, views these incidents as grave threats to freedom of expression in Morocco and as flagrant violations of international standards for press freedom. We remind Your Excellency that Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in particular, guarantees journalists the right to “seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
CPJ urges Your Excellency to adopt the following recommendations aimed at bringing Morocco’s practices in line with international standards for a free press:
- Guarantee the right of journalists to report news and opinion without state reprisal, including the dissemination of a diversity of views, even if these views are opposed to or critical of prevailing state policies;
- Cease all state prosecutions of journalists in response to their publication of news and opinion and examine all legal options at your disposal to ensure that the sentences handed down against Mustafa Aloui and Khaled Mechbal are reversed in accordance with international press freedom standards;
- End state censorship of newspapers and other publications.
Thank you for your attention to these important matters.
Ann K. Cooper