Facing record damages, Moroccan weekly’s survival in doubt

New York, December 28, 2006—The publisher of the independent Moroccan weekly Le Journal Hebdomadaire and a former reporter have been ordered to pay the record damages awarded earlier this year in a controversial defamation suit. Publisher Aboubakr Jamaï said the award could jeopardize the magazine’s survival.

Jamaï told CPJ that two court officials visited Le Journal‘s Casablanca office on December 18 and gave him and former reporter Fahd al-Iraqi one week to pay a damage award of the 3 million dirhams (US$354,000) and fines in the amount of 100,000 dirhams (US$11,800). A Rabat court awarded damages in February to the head of a Belgium think tank who said the magazine defamed him in a 2005 article. The award, which was upheld on appeal in April, is the largest ever levied against a Moroccan publication in a defamation case, according to Le Journal.

With the deadline having passed, authorities took no immediate action. But Jamaï told CPJ today that he is unable to pay the award and fears that Moroccan authorities may move to close the magazine and seize his personal assets and those of al-Iraqi.

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 the center’s report on the disputed Western Sahara, which was annexed by Morocco three decades ago. Moniquet objected to the portrayal that the report was “guided by” the Moroccan government, and he said the magazine erroneously suggested that the report was government funded.

Moroccan courts are widely seen as influenced by the government; the proceedings in this case fueled suspicions of a politically motivated judgment. Le Journal declined to defend itself at trial and on appeal after it was barred from introducing expert witnesses who would have testified that Moniquet’s report closely reflected government positions on the Western Sahara dispute. The state prosecutor went on record in support of Moniquet’s original demand of 5 million dirhams, although the prosecution had no obligation to make any recommendation. The trial court provided no explanation for how it reached the unprecedented damage award, the second record-breaking amount levied against Le Journal. Moroccan state-run media have eagerly covered the lawsuit, condemning the publication and highlighting the claims of the plaintiff.

“Morocco has burnished an image as a liberal nation with a robust press, but this case raises many questions, especially given the magazine’s long history as a target of government harassment and legal persecution,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “Le Journal has provided an invaluable forum for debate, and its future is vital to a free press in Morocco.”

Le Journal Hebdomadaire and its sister publication, Assahifa al-Ousbouiya, have been repeatedly harassed by the government for their reporting on corruption, corporate impropriety, and taboo political topics. The papers have been criminally prosecuted, banned, and targeted financially through government advertising boycotts.

In 2001, Jamaï and director Ali Ammar were slapped with then-record damages of around 1 million dirhams (US$118,000) for allegedly defaming Foreign Minister Muhammad Ben Aissa. The charges stemmed from articles published in 2000 in the weekly’s predecessor, Le Journal, alleging that Ben Aissa had profited from the purchase of an official residence during his tenure as Morocco’s ambassador to the United States in the late 1990s. The court also sentenced the journalists to suspended prison sentences.

In February, just days before the Moniquet verdict, Moroccan authorities orchestrated protests against the magazine. The “demonstrators,” some of whom later acknowledged that they were recruited by the government, protested publication of an Agence France-Presse photograph showing a reader holding the edition of the Paris daily France Soir that reproduced Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. The magazine published the photograph as part of a 10-page chronology of events that followed publication of the controversial drawings in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.

For more background, see these CPJ alerts: