When he assumed the throne in 1999, 38-year-old King Muhammad VI kindled hopes that he would usher in a period of greater political freedom in Morocco. The independent press continued to push the limits of free expression–and just as quickly found them. In 2001, as in previous years, Moroccan authorities used criminal prosecutions, censorship, and harassment to restrict the media.
The current Press Code imposes tough penalties on journalists who defame public officials or offend members of the royal family. Authorities also have the legal power to confiscate, suspend, or revoke the licenses of publications deemed to threaten public order.
In December 2000, the Moroccan government permanently closed the country’s three most audacious independent publications–the weeklies Le Journal, Al-Sahiffa, and Demain–for printing a letter alleging that Prime Minister Abderrahamane Youssefi was involved in a 1972 leftist plot to assassinate the late King Hassan II.
The publications, which earned their reputations by publishing daring stories about corruption, the disputed Western Sahara region, and unsavory aspects of Morocco’s political history, resumed publishing in 2001 under new, but similar sounding, titles. However, the authorities continued to pressure them in various ways, including through defamation suits.
In March, a Casablanca court convicted Abou Bakr Jamai and Ali Ammar, directors of the weekly Le Journal Hebdomadaire (formerly Le Journal) of defaming Foreign Minister Muhammad Ben Aissa after an article in Le Journal alleged that Ben Aissa had profited from the purchase of an official residence during his tenure as Morocco’s ambassador to the United States. The two journalists were sentenced to jail terms of three and two months, respectively, and ordered to pay fines and damages totaling 2,020,000 dirhams (about US$200,000). Jamai and Ammar appealed the decision; their case was still pending at year’s end.
Reporters and photographers also reported threats and harassment from state security agents, and some were briefly detained. In July, security agents followed and threatened France 3 Public Television editor Alain Chabod and Demain Magazine‘s Ali Lmrabet while they were investigating explosive revelations that top Moroccan officials had tortured and killed prominent leftist dissident Mehdi Ben Barka in 1965. Agents also visited Demain Magazine‘s printer and ordered the presses stopped so that they could read the current edition.
In July, King Muhammad issued a veiled threat against the Moroccan press during an interview with the London-based daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat. Press freedom should be used in a “responsible” way, and journalists should respect state institutions, the king said. While professing respect for the press, Muhammad warned that he had “judicial means that I have not yet used, but if need be I will be forced to use in accordance with the law.”
Meanwhile, Moroccan officials were not shy about using censorship. Authorities confiscated editions of Al-Risala wal Futawwa published by the local Islamist group Justice and Charity. By year’s end, the authorities had also seized copies of Demain Magazine and suspended the magazine indefinitely, maintaining that the paper had failed to pay a fine from a November defamation conviction. The magazine claimed that the fine had been paid in full.
Officials also continued to ban issues of foreign publications that contained politically sensitive material, including several European newspapers that criticized the king, exposed human rights abuses, documented the country’s social problems, or referred to the dispute over Western Sahara.
Morocco had one imprisoned journalist at year’s end, Noureddine Darif, a journalist for the leftist weekly Al-Amal al Democrati who was arrested in Western Sahara in November for attempting to interview individuals injured during anti-government demonstrations. He was taken to a police station and reportedly beaten. Darif is accused of “collusion with a foreign party” and of stirring up violent disturbances. He is currently being held in Ayoun Prison.
Abou Bakr Jamai, Le Journal Hebdomadaire
Ali Ammar, Le Journal Hebdomadaire
Jamai, publications director of the weekly Le Journal Hebdomadaire, and Ammar, the newspaper’s general director, were convicted of defaming Foreign Minister Muhammed Ben Aissa and sentenced to serve three months and two months in jail, respectively. They were also ordered to pay fines and damages totaling 2,020,000 dirhams (about US$200,000).
The charges stemmed from articles published last year in Le Journal Hebdomadaire’s now-defunct weekly 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.
The journalists appealed the ruling and also complained that procedural issues had been raised to deny their right to mount a defense. The court case was adjourned until late January 2002 but had not restarted as this book went to press.
In a March 1 letter to King Muhammad VI, CPJ condemned the criminal libel suit and called on the king to ensure that the harsh prison sentences were overturned.
Ali Lmrabet, Demain Magazine
Alain Chabod, France 3 Public Television
Moroccan secret service (DST) agents began following Chabod, deputy chief editor of France 3 Public Television, while he was in the country investigating recent revelations about the 1965 disappearance of dissident Mehdi Ben Barka.
The Ben Barka story broke on June 30, when a former DST agent named Ahmed Boukhari told Radio France Internationale that he had new evidence linking top Moroccan officials to the torture and killing of Ben Barka. In an interview with the station, Boukhari said he would cooperate with French authorities investigating the case.
After this interview, Chabod told CPJ, he and other French journalists flew to Morocco in hopes of talking to Boukhari. Chabod first noticed that he was being followed on June 6, after meeting with Ahmed Boukhari’s son, Karim, in a public place in the capital, Rabat.
On July 6, two DST officials visited the offices of Safaprint, the printer that produces Demain Magazine. According to Lmrabet, the agents ordered the company to stop printing and then left the premises after confiscating several copies of the current issue.
Lmrabet told CPJ that the issue contained a handwritten letter from Ahmed Boukhari, dated December 2000, in which the agent claimed to have information about the Ben Barka case.
Seven hours later, the DST agents returned to Safaprint and announced that Demain Magazine could be printed after all.
On July 7 at about 11:00 a.m., Chabod and Lmrabet were driving in a Rabat suburb when two men approached their car. One of the men photographed Lmrabet and threatened him. Lmrabet told CPJ that he was able to note the license plate of the car. Chabod identified the two men as the DST agents who had followed him after his interview with Karim Boukhari.
CPJ issued an alert about these incidents on July 13.
Noureddine Darif, Al-Amal al-Democrati
Darif, a journalist for the leftist weekly Al-Amal al-Democrati, was detained by local authorities in Smara Province of Western Sahara, which is controlled by Morocco. Darif was detained at a hospital where he was trying to interview individuals injured earlier in the day during demonstrations. He was taken to a police station and beaten, according to reports and CPJ sources. Darif is accused of “collusion with a foreign party” and of stirring up violent disturbances. He is in Ayoun Prison.
Ali Lmrabet, Demain Magazine
A Rabat court sentenced Lmrabet, director of Demain Magazine, to four months in prison and a 30,000 Dirham (US$3,000) fine for “distributing false information.”
While the charges cited an October 20 Demain Magazine article claiming that a royal palace was for sale, Lmrabet pointed to his recent publication of excerpts from a French author’s book about King Muhammed VI, along with an article about the king’s cousin Moulay Hichem.
Lmrabet refused to appeal the sentence on the grounds that the charges were spurious and the court decision was politically motivated. After widespread coverage of his case in the regional press, the government filed an appeal on Lmrabet’s behalf. The appeal was pending at year’s end.