Moroccan paper says it is victim of state-organized protests over cartoons

New York, February 15, 2006—The weekly Le Journal Hebdomadaire has accused Moroccan authorities of orchestrating protests against it for publishing a photograph of a French newspaper showing a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad. The Casablanca-based newspaper said in a statement that for two days this week protesters have demonstrated against it and that two state-run television stations have accused it of blasphemy.

Le Journal publisher Aboubakr Jamai told CPJ that on February 11 the newspaper 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 inked out the cartoon. Le Journal published the photograph as part of a 10-page chronology of events that followed the publication of the drawings in Jyllands-Posten. The Danish daily published 12 cartoons of Muhammad on September 30, 2005 sparking furor in the Muslim world where depictions of the Prophet are considered by many to be blasphemous. One drawing showed Muhammad wearing a bomb-shaped turban with a lit fuse.

“We are alarmed that state-run media are publicly attacking this newspaper,” said Ann Cooper, Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “We are gravely concerned about the safety of Le Journal’s staff, and call on the government to take steps to ensure their security.”

Le Journal issued a detailed statement Tuesday about the protests and television coverage. It said state-run television stations 2M and TVM broadcast footage of hundreds of demonstrators shouting slogans against Le Journal on Monday outside Parliament. 2M accused the newspaper of “running against public opinion by taking up positions against the sacred values of our country.”

On Tuesday, police set up an area for protesters outside Le Journal’s offices. Under the supervision of the Interior Ministry, several vehicles, including a Hyundai van with the license plate 131723 J, belonging to the Casablanca city government, brought about a hundred people to demonstrate. Municipal employees gave them placards and Moroccan flags, the statement said.

Municipal employees used loudspeakers to shout slogans against the papers. Several people in the crowd told journalists that they were brought by the municipal authorities. One woman said that she came because the municipality would reward them, but that she didn’t know what the demonstration was about. Television channels 2M and TVM filmed the demonstrations, the statement said.

“The allegations that the Moroccan authorities played a role in organizing these demonstrations are alarming. We demand that the government explain why municipal vehicles were shuttling protesters and why municipal employees were organizing the crowds against the paper,” Cooper added.

The fallout from the cartoons continues throughout the Muslim world. In Syria, journalist Adel Mahfouz was arrested and charged by the Damascus prosecutor’s office following an article he wrote advocating peaceful dialogue instead of violent protests as a means of dealing with the cartoons. According to news reports Mahfouz was arrested on February 7, hours after he published the article on the independent daily news Web site Rezgar. He was charged with insulting public religious sentiment under the penal code. If convicted, he faces up to three years imprisonment.