Moroccan court awards record damages against independent weekly

New York, February 17, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply concerned by the record damages awarded by a Moroccan court against the independent weekly Le Journal Hebdomadaire in a defamation suit brought by a Belgian think tank. The magazine, which has been harassed by the government since its founding in the late 1990s, said it was barred from mounting a proper defense.

“These unfair trial proceedings fuel our suspicions that this is a politically-motivated judgment,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “Such punitive damages seem intended to put Le Journal Hebdomadaire out of business and rob the Moroccan public of an independent voice. We hope that this verdict will be overturned on appeal.”

On Thursday, a Rabat court awarded 3 million dirhams (US$327,000) in damages to the head of a Belgium-based think tank who said the magazine had defamed him and his institute in an article last year criticizing one of its reports about Morocco and the disputed Western Sahara. The court also fined the magazine a total of 100,000 dirhams (US$10,900).

Aboubakr Jamai, Le Journal Hebdomadaire‘s publisher, told CPJ that the damages, the largest ever awarded against a Moroccan publication for defamation, would force the magazine to close. He said he plans to appeal.

During the trial the judge barred Le Journal Hebdomadaire from introducing an expert witness. The decision prompted Le Journal Hebdomadaire to withdraw from the trial in protest. Moroccan state-run media have eagerly covered the lawsuit, condemning the publication and highlighting the claims of the plaintiff.

Le Journal Hebdomadaire and its sister publication, Assahifa al-Ousbouiya, have been harassed by the government for their reporting on corruption, corporate impropriety, and taboo political topics. In 2000, Moroccan authorities banned editions of both papers when Le Journal Hebdomadaire crossed a political redline by publishing an interview with Muhammad Abdelaziz, leader of the Polisario Front rebel movement, which has been fighting Morocco for independence of Western Sahara since the 1970s.

The defamation suit was brought by Claude Moniquet, who heads a Brussels-based security think tank called European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center. Moniquet alleged that Le Journal Hebdomadaire defamed him and his institute when it published a six-page critique questioning the independence of a report on Western Sahara. The report has been described as reflecting the official views of the Moroccan government. Moniquet said he objected to the article which portrayed the report as being “guided by” and possibly paid for by the Moroccan government.

In a separate development, CPJ is alarmed by ongoing public protests against Le Journal Hebdomadaire which are apparently being orchestrated by the Moroccan government in response to the magazine’s publishing of a photograph of a French newspaper showing a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad. On Wednesday, Moroccan demonstrators appeared in front of the magazine’s printer in Casablanca. The magazine interviewed several of the protestors who admitted they had been brought there by the Moroccan ministry of interior. At a separate demonstration outside the magazine’s offices protestors also told journalists they had been brought there by authorities. The license plate of at least one vehicle that ferried demonstrators showed that it belong to local authorities.

On February 11 the magazine published an Agence France-Presse photograph showing a reader holding the edition of the Paris daily France Soir which reproduced the Danish cartoons of the Prophet. The cartoons were barely visible but to avoid controversy Le Journal Hebdomadaire inked out the cartoon. Le Journal Hebdomadaire published the photograph as part of a 10-page chronology of events that followed the publication of the drawings in Jyllands-Posten.

“The involvement of the Moroccan authorities in these protests is an outrage,” Cooper said. “We demand officials halt these dangerous provocations at once.”
For more information on the protest, click here: