Moroccan press faces aggressive judicial harassment

New York, January 18, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by a recent series of criminal cases against the Moroccan press, including criminal prosecutions of newspaper editors and the imposition of excessive fines on independent publications. Three journalists face possible imprisonment as a direct result of news or opinions published in their weeklies.

Abdelaziz Koukas, publisher and editor of the independent weekly al-Ousbouia al-Jadida, faces three to five years in prison and a fine up to 100,000 dirhams (US$11,000) for defaming the monarchy under Article 41 of the Press and Publication Law 2002. The weekly also faces possible closure as a result of the trial, which is set to begin March 14. The charges stem from an interview with Nadia Yassin, daughter of Sheikh Abd al-Islam Yassin, head of the outlawed Islamist organization Justice and Charity, which the weekly published in early June 2005. Yassin criticized the monarchial system and stated that Morocco should become a republic. It is a constitutional offense to criticize the monarchy or to advocate a different system of government.

Nour Eddine Miftah, editor of the independent weekly Al-Ayam, and Meriem Moukrim, a journalist for the weekly, are set to appear in a Casablanca court on Monday to face charges of disturbing public order by publishing “false” articles under Article 42 of the Press and Publication Law 2002. The charges stem from a piece by Moukrim detailing the royal harem’s influence on King Muhammad V and his son King Hassan II and saying that King Muhammad VI had broken from the harem’s sway. If convicted, both journalists face one month to a year in prison and a fine of up to 100,000 dirhams (US$11,000). They face a second charge, under a law enacted in 1956, of publishing photographs of the royal family without obtaining prior consent.

In another case, the Casablanca Court of Appeal dealt a blow to press freedom when it upheld the criminal defamation conviction of Ahmed Reda Benchemsi, publisher and managing editor of the independent weekly TelQuel, and Karim Boukhari, the magazine’s editor. In a December 29, 2005, ruling, the court affirmed the two-month suspended sentences given to the journalists, but it reduced damages from 1,000,000 dirhams (US$110,000) to 800,000 dirhams (US$88,400). The journalists were denied further appeals. They were found guilty of defamation in August 2005 stemming from an article revealing that a female member of parliament was once a “chiekha,” the equivalent of a cabaret dancer. The magazine used a fictitious name for the parliamentarian, Halima Assali, who sued the journalists nonetheless.

In each case, editors say, the monetary penalties are at the maximum end of what is allowed and could threaten the financial viability of a newspaper’s operations.

“These frivolous cases pose a grave threat to the most essential functions of the press—to report on the government and the activities of its leaders,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “These large fines and the threat of imprisonment have the effect of censoring independent journalists.”