A step in the wrong direction

A step in the wrong direction

By Hani Sabra

Assahifa al-Ousbouiya weekly, Morocco
May 5 , 2005

Arabic Version

Maverick journalist Ali Lmrabet once again finds himself under attack by Moroccan authorities. In a shocking move last week, a Rabat court banned him from practicing journalism for 10 years for defaming a pro-government group. The crude verdict is the kind of punishment one would expect Cuba or China to undertake in order to silence dissidents. The court’s decision certainly contradicts public statements made by Moroccan officials committing to democracy and a free press. Just last month, in an effort to put the Morocco’s reformist credentials on display, Minister of Communications Nabil Benabdallah announced that the government had agreed in principle to amend the country’s harsh press law by canceling the penalty of imprisonment for journalists.

The case against Lmrabet is a move in the wrong direction.

Lmrabet’s recent ordeal is as peculiar as it is distressing. The journalist was found guilty of defaming a little known pro-government organization in an article he wrote for the Spanish daily El Mundo last November. In the article, which never mentioned the organization that sued him, Lmrabet referred to the Saharawi people living in camps in the Algerian city of Tindouf as refugees, contradicting the Moroccan government’s position that they are prisoners of the independence movement Polisario Front.

Lmrabet has had a long history of problems with the government. In 2003, he spent nearly nine months behind bars for publishing articles and cartoons in his now-shuttered weeklies that lampooned the monarchy, and interviewed an opponent of the king who challenged the government line on the Western Sahara, a taboo for Moroccan journalists.

The lawsuit launched this April, nearly four months after the article’s initial publication, moved with breathtaking speed and followed months of official foot-dragging to deny Lmrabet a license to launch a new weekly—the real reason Lmrabet suspects he is being targeted. Meanwhile, pro-government newspapers launched withering personal attacks on Lmrabet, repeatedly accusing him of being traitor. One newspaper asserted, incorrectly, that Lmrabet is an Algerian citizen (because his statements about Tindouf.)

So far, Moroccan authorities have sidestepped responsibility for Lmrabet’s punishment, stating that it was an independent judicial decision (although one minister said in a television interview that the sentence against Lmrabet was just.)

The official silence in condemning this unjust punishment speaks volumes. A free press is a hallmark of a democracy and banning a journalist from practicing his profession is an unacceptable act. It’s certainly not to be expected from country claiming to be transitioning to democracy. It sends the wrong message to journalists in Morocco and to the international community. It fosters a press that self-censors for fear of suffering a similar fate.

If Morocco is serious about democratic reform and embracing a free press it should act decisively and condemn the punishment handed down against Ali Lmrabet. The Moroccan government should do all in its power to ensure that sanctions imposed against him are dropped and that legal reforms are initiated to prevent such cases from occurring again in the future. The government would make a definitive statement in support of press freedom by ending the harassment of Lmrabet and allowing him to begin publishing again.

Since King Muhammad VI’s ascent to the throne in 1999, Moroccan authorities have taken pains to say that they are moving toward democracy. Meaningful action would prove this.

Hani Sabra is research associate for the Middle East and North Africa program at the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York.