Moroccan court convicts Nichane journalists, shutters publication

New York, January 16, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns a Moroccan court’s decision on Monday to sentence two independent journalists to suspended jail terms and close their magazine for two months.

The Casablanca court handed down three-year suspended sentences to Driss Ksikes, director and editor of the independent weekly Nichane, and reporter Sanaa al-Aji for denigrating Islam under Morocco’s Press and Publication Law. The journalists were also fined 80,000 dirhams (US$9,300), Ksikes told CPJ. The prison terms could be imposed if either journalist is convicted of a future offense.

Ksikes said he was considering an appeal but had yet to make a decision.

“We reject the notion that these journalists committed a crime,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “Morocco has cast itself as liberalizing nation, yet by sentencing journalists to jail for their work and closing their publications, it has shown once again that its press is far from free.”

The charges against Ksikes and al-Aji stem from a 10-page article analyzing popular jokes about religion, sex, and politics, which was published in Nichane in early December 2006. The suit was brought after complaints from Islamist Web sites, according to international news reports. One of the jokes described a man at the gates of heaven, where God and the Prophet Muhammad were unable to locate his name on a ledger of entrants. After the man becomes frightened, Ksikes said, God and Muhammad laugh and remark, “Thank you for participating in ’Candid Camera.’”

Ksikes and al-Aji were charged with denigrating Islam under Article 41 of the Press and Publication Law 2002. The state prosecutor had initially called for harsher penalties that included three to five years in jail, fines ranging from 10,000 to 100,000 dirhams (US$1,100 to US$11,600), a lifetime ban on practicing journalism, and the permanent closure of the magazine.

Prime Minister Driss Jettou had banned Nichane on December 20; the court’s decision on Monday effectively extends the closure for another two months. The Arabic-language magazine, launched late last year, is a sister publication of the independent French-language weekly TelQuel. Both magazines are owned by the TelQuel Group headed by Ahmed Reda Benchemsi.

Benchemsi said the religious jokes involved God, angels, and prophets as characters, but the jokes did not make fun of them; Nichane later apologized on public television for any offense caused.

According to Moroccan journalists, the Moroccan authorities sought to use the prosecution to curry favor with Islamists ahead of legislative elections and to weaken the independent Nichane.

In February 2006, another weekly came under fire for offending religious beliefs. Moroccan authorities orchestrated protests against the weekly Le Journal Hebdomadaire after it published a photograph of a French newspaper showing one of the controversial Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. The magazine’s publisher was later ordered to pay record damages in a defamation judgment widely seen as politically motivated.