Appeals court upholds record damages against independent weekly

New York, April 19, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by a Moroccan appeals court decision to uphold record damages against the independent magazine Le Journal Hebdomadaire in a defamation suit brought by a Belgian think tank. The magazine, which said it was prevented from mounting a proper defense, now faces bankruptcy.

The weekly, long the target of government harassment for its critical reporting, was sued by Claude Moniquet, head of the Brussels-based European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center.

“The court proceedings throughout this lawsuit have been unfair to Le Journal Hebdomadaire, fuelling suspicion that the judgments are politically motivated,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “This is a sad day for Moroccans who could soon be deprived of one of the country’s most independent publications. We urge Claude Moniquet not to enforce this disturbing judgment and spare the magazine.”

On April 18, the Rabat Court of Appeal upheld a lower court ruling awarding 3 million dirhams (US$327,000) in damages to Moniquet who said that Le Journal Hebdomadaire had defamed him and his institute in a six-page critique last year questioning the independence of a report on the disputed Western Sahara. The report was 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. 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. Ali Amar, director of Le Journal Hebdomadaire, told CPJ that the magazine would only be able to continue if the plaintiff did not enforce the judgment.

Le Journal Hebdomadaire withdrew from both the appeal hearing and the lower court trial because it was barred from introducing an expert witness. The Moroccan judiciary is widely viewed as lacking independence and is under the influence of high government officials. 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. On February 15 and 16, Moroccan authorities orchestrated protests against Le Journal Hebdomadaire for publishing a photograph of a French newspaper which showed some of the controversial Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. In 2000, authorities banned editions of both publications 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.