Journalists sentenced for defaming foreign minister

New York, February 19, 2002—The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) deplores the suspended prison sentences and fines imposed last week on two journalists from the weekly Le Journal Hebdomadaire.

On February 14, a Casablanca court of appeals convicted Abou Bakr Jamai, publications director of Le Journal Hebdomadaire, and Ali Ammar, the newspaper’s general director, of defaming Foreign Minister Muhammed Ben Aissa.

The charges stemmed from articles published in 2000 in Le Journal Hebdomadaire‘s now-defunct predecessor, Le Journal, alleging that Ben Aissa profited from the purchase of an official residence during his tenure as Morocco’s ambassador to the United States in the late 1990s.

Jamai and Ammar have complained that in the original trial, held in a lower court, the judge used procedural grounds to prevent them from mounting a defense.

The court sentenced the journalists to three-month and two-month suspended prison sentences, respectively. Both men were also ordered to pay fines and damages totaling 510,000 dirhams (about US$44,000).

The case will now go to the Court of Cassation, Morocco’s final court of appeal. No date has been set for the hearing.

It is unclear whether the paper will be required to pay damages before the high court hears the case. Staff at Le Journal Hebdomadaire told CPJ that the fines and other penalties could bankrupt the newspaper.

“The journalists reported in good faith on a story of obvious public interest,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “It is outrageous that they face criminal sanctions for doing their jobs. We call on Muhammed Ben Aissa to drop the charges immediately.”