CENSORSHIP, PROFESSIONAL BANNINGS, AND CRIMINAL PROSECUTIONS were among the official acts that eroded press freedom in Morocco in 2000, reversing gains seen in the final two years of the late King Hassan II’s reign, and following the 1999 coronation of his son, the liberal-minded King Muhammed VI.
In December, the government permanently banned the weekly newspapers Le Journal, Al-Sahiffa, and Demain. All three newspapers had published or commented on a letter alleging that Prime Minister Abderrahamane Youssefi, a former left-wing activist, had been involved in a 1972 leftist plot to assassinate King Hassan.
Youssefi responded to the journalistic uproar over the bans by claiming that press freedom in Morocco was not threatened, and that the bans were “merely a disciplinary measure deserved by some people.” All three papers had suffered repeated government harassment for covering the alleged misdeeds of public officials, as well as sensitive topics such as human rights, the Islamist opposition, and the disputed Western Sahara. They were among the few local newspapers that dared to comment critically on such issues.
In April, Mustafa Alaoui, editor of the Arabic-language weekly Al-Ousbou, and Khaled Meshbal, editor of the weekly Al-Shamal, were convicted of libeling Foreign Minister Muhammad Ben Aissa after they implicated Ben Aissa in allegedly crooked business deals. Alaoui was sentenced to three months in prison, ordered to pay crippling fines, and banned from working as a journalist for three years. (According to Alaoui, the professional ban was unprecedented in Morocco.) Meshbal was slapped with a six-month suspended prison sentence and banned from practicing journalism for one year. King Muhammed pardoned both journalists in late May, though they still faced possible civil penalties at year’s end.
In early October, members of a French television crew were placed under house arrest for several days, after being accused of filming military facilities. Also in October, the government indefinitely barred local reporters for the popular Qatari satellite channel Al-Jazeera from working in Morocco, in what was believed to be a reprisal for Al-Jazeera’s critical reporting on the Western Sahara dispute. The decision was soon reversed, but on November 4, the government expelled Agence France-Presse bureau chief Claude Juvenal, apparently because it disapproved of his reporting on human-rights issues.
Morocco’s Press Code imposes tough penalties on journalists who defame public officials or offend any member of the royal family. Authorities also have the legal power to confiscate, suspend, or revoke the licenses of publications deemed a threat to public order.
During the clampdown, ironically, the government announced it was considering draft amendments to the Press Law that would nullify criminal penalties for libel and other journalistic transgression. No official action had been taken by year’s end, however.
Moroccan authorities banned an edition of the French magazine Jeune Afrique-L’Intelligent, apparently for publishing a letter from a Moroccan expatriate living in Canada that questioned King Muhammad VI’s commitment to political reform.
Moroccan censors banned the French daily Le Figaro for one day, apparently in response to an article that alleged the complicity of the late King Hassan II in the 1965 disappearance of Moroccan opposition leader Mehdi Ben Barka.
In late March, the French-language weekly Demain was blocked from printing its upcoming issue after shareholder Samira Aboulbaqaa refused to sign a money transfer required to pay the newspaper’s printer in Spain. According to Demain director Ali Lmrabet and other staff members, Aboulbaqaa acted on behalf of Moroccan government officials who were angered by Demain‘s coverage of sensitive issues such as Morocco’s territorial claims in the Western Sahara.
Under the newspaper’s corporate structure, both Lmrabet and Aboulbaqaa had to approve money transfers to the printer. Aboulbaqaa became the majority shareholder a few days before the incident, after three other investors abruptly sold her their shares. The three investors later told Demain that they had been pressured to relinquish their shares, but refused to give further details, according to the paper. Aboulbaqaa is the chief executive officer of HIMVEST, a company controlled by businessman Abdenasser Bouazza, who has close links to the royal palace, according to sources at Demain.
A week before the incident, Demain‘s front page carried the headline “To Negotiate or Not,” along with a photo of one of the leaders of the Polisario Front, a rebel movement that is fighting for the independence of Western Sahara. The article, titled “Negotiate, Yes, but with Whom?” quoted a leaked official document to the effect that King Muhammad VI was prepared to concede “large autonomy” to the Western Sahara.
Moroccan journalists have historically been guarded in their coverage of the Western Sahara, avoiding any suggestion that Morocco might compromise its sovereign claim to the region. Even suggesting the possibility of negotiating with the Polisario was a bold editorial move, and one that seems to have infuriated Moroccan authorities.
In its two previous issues, the paper published articles on two other sensitive topics: the Islamist opposition in Morocco and the alleged activities of Israel’s intelligence agency, the Mossad, in Morocco.
Moroccan authorities banned current editions of the French-language weekly Le Journal and its sister publication, the Arabic weekly Al-Sahiffa. According to a Ministry of Communications statement, the action was taken in response to Le Journal‘s publication of an interview with Muhammad Abdelaziz, leader of the Polisario Front rebel movement, which has been fighting for independence for the Western Sahara since the 1970s. The statement added that the two publications had been banned because of “excesses in [their] editorial line concerning the question of Morocco’s territorial integrity,” along with alleged “collusion with foreign interests.”
The banned edition of Le Journal also contained several other articles about the Western Sahara issue. Al-Sahiffa did not run the Abdelaziz interview but was banned nonetheless. Shipments of Le Journal, which is printed in France, were confiscated by airport police.
CPJ protested this act of censorship in an April 19 letter to Prime Minister Abderrahamane Youssoufi.
Larbi Belarabi, 2M
Mustafa Melouk, 2M
Muhammad Mamad, 2M
The state-controlled television station 2M, headed by Communications Minister Mohamed Larbi Messari, dismissed director general Belarabi, program director Melouk, and editor Mamad for making an unspecified “professional error” in an April 14 newscast.
The “error” was widely believed to have been the mentioning of a forthcoming interview with Polisario Front leader Muhammad Abdelaziz in the weekly newspaper Le Journal.
Mustafa Alaoui, Al-Ousbou
A Moroccan court convicted Alaoui, editor of the Arabic-language weekly Al-Ousbou, of libeling Foreign Minister Muhammad Ben Aissa, who formerly served as Morocco’s ambassador to the United States. The case against Alaoui stemmed from a December 1999 Al-Ousbou article titled “The House That’s There: Company with Capital of 500 Dirhams Sells Morocco a House Worth Five Million.” The article 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 house’s appraised value.
Alaoui was sentenced to three months in prison and ordered to pay the crippling sum of 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 remained free pending the outcome of his appeal, although the professional ban took effect immediately. King Muhammad VI pardoned the journalist on May 28, annulling the jail sentence and other penalties.
Khaled Meshbal, Al-Shamal
A Moroccan court convicted Meshbal, editor of the weekly Al-Shamal, of libeling Foreign Minister Muhammad Ben Aissa in a February 14 article that accused the minister of political corruption. 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.
King Muhammad VI pardoned Meshbal on May 28, annulling all penalties against him.
Claude Juvenal, Agence France-Presse
Moroccan authorities withdrew the press accreditation of Juvenal, Rabat bureau chief for Agence France-Presse (AFP), and ordered him to leave the country. No reason was given for the move, but government officials have repeatedly complained about international news-agency coverage of Morocco over the past year.
According to AFP, the government took particular exception to Juvenal’s reporting on the February trial of a whistle-blowing army captain who had alleged rampant corruption in the armed forces. Authorities were also angered by the agency’s “regular usage…of news reports released by the Moroccan Association of Human Rights,” AFP said.
The government of Prime Minister Abderrahmane Youssoufi shut down the independent weekly newspapers Demain, Le Journal, and Al-Sahiffa. In a December 2 statement, the government said it banned the three newspapers because they had attacked “the most sacred institutional bases of our country” and threatened “the stability of the state.” The statement added: “In insulting reality…and fabricating history, these papers have created doubt and sowed confusion in the spirit of Moroccans.”
The three papers were banned for publishing or commenting on a letter allegedly written by former Moroccan leftist leader Mohamed Basri in 1974, implicating socialist politicians in a failed August 1972 coup attempt against the late King Hassan II. The letter specifically suggested that Prime Minister Youssoufi, a former leftist, had been involved in an attempt to assassinate the late king.
All three newspapers were banned under Article 77 of the Press Law, which allows the government to suppress publications deemed to threaten Morocco’s political or religious foundations.
In January 2001, the government announced that all three newspapers had been granted permission to resume publishing under new titles.