The government eased a crackdown against independent journalists launched after multiple suicide bombings in Casablanca in 2003. But Moroccan journalists—among the most outspoken in the region—were still saddled with onerous press laws and a meddling government.
In January, the day before Prime Minister Driss Jettou visited Washington, D.C., King Mohammed VI issued a general amnesty that resulted in the release of two jailed journalists and the dismissal of criminal charges against several others. Ali Lmrabet had spent nearly nine months in jail, and Mohammed al-Herd passed seven months before being released.
The journalists’ arrests had triggered widespread condemnation of Morocco, a country that had burnished an image of political moderation and free expression. Lmrabet was serving a three-year sentence for “insulting the king,” “undermining the monarchy,” and “challenging the territorial integrity of the state” through articles and cartoons that tackled two of the most politically sensitive issues in Morocco—the monarchy and the country’s sovereignty over the disputed territory of Western Sahara. Al-Herd was imprisoned for running an article in his weekly newspaper by a Moroccan Islamist that discussed the history of the Islamist movement in Morocco and its alleged relationship with the country’s intelligence services. The cases of at least five other journalists who had been handed suspended jail sentences or had criminal convictions under appeal were also dismissed under the amnesty.
Morocco’s independent and party newspapers remained among the most aggressive in the Arab world. Still, Moroccan journalists worked under the constant threat of prosecution. The country’s 2002 Press Code criminalized criticizing the king, “defaming” the monarchy, and challenging Morocco’s right to Western Sahara. Violators may be sentenced to up to five years in prison. The government may also revoke publication licenses, suspend newspapers, and confiscate editions deemed to threaten public order.
Moroccan journalists were also anxious about aspects of the country’s antiterrorism law, adopted shortly after the 2003 Casablanca bombings and subsequently used to suspend three publications and to jail at least four journalists who wrote about extremist groups. The law broadly defines terrorist activity as anything “where the main objective is to disrupt public order.” The “promulgation and dissemination of propaganda or advertisement in support of such acts” falls under its prohibitions.
Government officials continued to exert indirect pressure against independent publications. Journalists from the sister publications Le Journal Hebdomadaire (The Weekly Journal) and Assahifa al-Ousbouiya (also The Weekly Journal) complained
that officials were pressuring advertisers to stop buying space in the magazines. In September, Moroccan Foreign Minister Muhammed Ben Aissa attempted to collect court-ordered damages from a dubious 2002 defamation ruling against the weeklies’ editor, Ali Ammar, and their publications director, Aboubakr Jamai. The abrupt demand for payment—made even as the journalists’ appeal was pending before the country’s high court—followed an interview Le Journal had conducted with a critic of the royal family. The newspapers began paying the heavy damages, the equivalent of more than US$50,000.
At least two criminal lawsuits were brought against journalists working for tabloids, and at least two of their editors were imprisoned. In one case, Anas Tadili, editor of the weekly Akhbar al-Ousboue (News of the Week), was sentenced to a year in prison in late September after being convicted of defaming Economics Minister Fathallah Oualalou. The charges stemmed from an article Tadili published in April in which he alleged that Oualalou was a homosexual. Tadili was already in prison at the time of the sentence, serving a six-month term for a prior currency violation that was suddenly revived. According to his lawyer, several other defamation charges have been filed against Tadili.
Foreign journalists working in Morocco have faced government harassment in the past, and 2004 proved no different. In June, reporter Tor Dagfinn Dommersnes and photographer Fredrik Refvem of the Norwegian daily Stavanger Aftenbladet were expelled from the country. Although they were never given a specific reason, one of the agents who picked up the journalists from their hotel noted their reporting on Western Sahara.