Attacks on the Press 2003: Morocco

The multiple suicide bombings that rocked Casablanca on May 16, killing 44 people, triggered a government clampdown on the local media and further dimmed hopes that 40-year-old King Mohammed VI would institute greater press freedoms. In the aftermath of the attacks, the government ordered at least four newspapers closed and detained or imprisoned five journalists. Known for its relative tolerance of dissenting media, Morocco nonetheless held two journalists behind bars in 2003 for their work.

Days after the bombings, Parliament enacted a harsh antiterrorism law that granted authorities broad powers to arrest journalists and close publications. As a result of this new law, on June 5, authorities detained veteran editor Mustafa Alaoui of the weekly Al-Ousboua after his paper ran a communiqué issued by an Islamist group claiming responsibility for some of the Casablanca bombings. The communiqué, described by some journalists as dubious in its authenticity, alleged that Moroccan security forces had been aware of a pending terrorist attack in the country. Later that month, Alaoui was given a one-year suspended prison sentence and freed. A three-month ban on the paper was also suspended.

On June 12, three journalists–editors Mohammed al-Herd and Abdel Majid Ben Taher, of the Oujda-based weekly newspaper Al-Sharq, and Mustapha Qashnini, editor of the Oujda-based weekly Al-Hayat Al-Maghribiya–were detained and charged with extolling terrorist acts. The charges came in response to an article by a Moroccan Islamist in Al-Hayat Al-Maghribiya and reprinted in Al-Sharq that discussed the history of the Islamist movement in Morocco and its alleged relationship with the country’s intelligence services.

In August, al-Herd was sentenced to three years in prison, while Ben Taher and Qashnini were each sentenced to a year in prison. At year’s end, Ben Taher and Qashnini were free pending appeal, while al-Herd remained in prison. The court also suspended both weeklies from publication for three months.

The most publicized of the government’s retaliatory strikes against the media, however, was the trial and imprisonment of maverick editor Ali Lmrabet, who owns and edits the French-language weekly Demain and its Arabic-language sister publication, Douman. In a case launched earlier in 2003 before the Casablanca attacks, Lmrabet was convicted and jailed on May 21, five days after the bombings. A court found him guilty of “insulting the king,” “undermining the monarchy,” and “challenging the territorial integrity of the state.” He was sentenced to four years (later reduced on appeal to three years) in prison and fined 20,000 Moroccan dirhams (US$2,000). The court also ordered his two weeklies closed.

Lmrabet angered officials with a series of articles and cartoons that tackled two of the most politically sensitive issues in Morocco: the monarchy and the country’s disputed sovereignty over Western Sahara. The articles included an interview with Abdullah Zaazaa, an opponent of Morocco’s monarchy who called for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara; a satirical photomontage that included a photo from King Mohammed VI’s wedding; an article about the royal court’s finances; and a cartoon that criticized public displays of reverence to the monarchy. During 2003, Lmrabet launched separate hunger strikes to protest his persecution. (Lmrabet and Al-Sharq‘s al-Herd were released in early January 2004 after King Mohammed pardoned them along with several dozen other prisoners.)

Lmrabet was charged under Morocco’s new Press Code, which Parliament approved in March 2002. Under the new law, journalists can be sentenced to three to five years in jail for defaming the monarchy, Islam, or challenging Morocco’s right to possess Western Sahara. The government retains the power to revoke publication licenses or confiscate and suspend papers deemed to threaten public order.

Lmrabet’s imprisonment, in addition to other journalists’ detentions and newspaper closures throughout 2003, sparked condemnation from the Moroccan press and international human rights groups. In June, a CPJ delegation met with the Moroccan ambassador to the United States, Aziz Mekouar, in Washington, D.C., and called for the immediate release of all imprisoned journalists. Members of the U.S. Congressional Human Rights Caucus wrote letters of concern to Mekouar, and in October, CPJ briefed the U.S. Helsinki Commission in Washington, D.C., on the deteriorating press freedom situation in the country.

While the state’s clampdown on the media intensified after the Casablanca attacks, the implementation of new restrictive measures had been going on for some time. In fact, in the months before the May attacks, authorities harassed or intimidated reporters in a number of unrelated incidents. On April 11, a group of unidentified men assaulted Douman reporter Mohamed Benouna in Settat, a town about 65 miles (104 kilometers) south of Casablanca, after he wrote an article alleging that the governor of Settat had granted a concession for the sale of alcohol in the province to Andre Azoulay, the royal adviser for economic and financial matters. The assailants beat Benouna and stripped him of his pants, telling him never to write about the governor again.

In a separate case, journalist Maria Mokrim, with the independent weekly Al-Ayyam, told CPJ that she received a series of threatening phone calls on her mobile phone in March regarding an article she had penned about the Moroccan secret service. On one occasion, she received a call while in a taxi from a man describing himself as “one of the people that you dared insult.” Moments later as she exited the taxi, the journalist was assaulted by a man with a large stick.

Foreign media that operate in the country are targets of occasional government pressure. In March, state-owned Moroccan public television temporarily barred the Qatar-based satellite television channel Al-Jazeera from using its facilities to feed broadcasts to Al-Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha after it completed a report on demonstrations in the capital, Rabat, against the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

Morocco still boasts a number of feisty party papers and a few truly independent ones. Among the most independent are the groundbreaking weekly newspaper Le Journal Hebdomadaire and its sister publication, Assahifa al Ousbouiya. Since they were founded in the late 1990s under the names Le Journal and Assahifa, the papers have boldly staked out new terrain in Moroccan journalism through tough investigative reporting on government corruption, corporate impropriety, and taboo political topics. In November, CPJ honored the papers’ publisher, Aboubakr Jamai, with an International Press Freedom Award in recognition of his commitment to independent news coverage amid repeated government interference. Since their founding, both of Jamai’s papers have been closed and reopened under their current names, and Jamai has been the target of government-inspired lawsuits for exposés on state corruption. In addition to these overt measures, officials have also attempted to pressure businesses not to advertise in Jamai’s publications.