King amnesties convicted journalists

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New York, June 2, 2000 — Morocco’s King Muhammad VI issued a royal pardon last Sunday annulling the prison sentences and other penalties recently imposed on two journalists for allegedly libeling Foreign Minister Muhammad Benaissa, the Committee to Protect Journalists has learned.

“This is a welcome development,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “Journalists should never face criminal prosecution or be deprived of their right to work because of what they publish. We hope that King Muhammad’s leadership in defense of press freedoms in this case will set an example for the entire Moroccan government to follow.”

In the past four months, the Moroccan government has taken several punitive measures against the press, including the censorship of newspapers and the criminal prosecution of journalists. The King is not an official part of the government, and some in Morocco view his decision to pardon the journalists as implicit criticism of the government’s actions.

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 that charged more than twice the appraised value of the house.

Based on this article, Alaoui was sentenced to three months in prison and ordered to pay the crippling sum of over US$100,000 in fines and compensation to Ben Aissa. The court subsequently banned him from practicing journalism for a period of three years. Alaoui had remained free pending the outcome of his appeal, although 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 that also accused Benaissa of impropriety. 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 totaling about US$12,000.

Although King Muhammad’s pardon canceled all criminal sanctions pending against Alaoui and Meshbal, both journalists still face civil damages if their appeal fails. Alaoui’s next court hearing is scheduled for June 8, while Meshbal’s is slated for July 10.