Attacks on the Press 2006: Morocco

Morocco’s robust independent press has few rivals in the Middle East, yet press freedom has eroded under what many journalists and human rights groups consider a government-inspired judicial assault against outspoken newspapers. During the year, several such publications were targets of criminal prosecutions that produced high damages and prison terms for journalists.

In a case that set the tone for the year, the Rabat Court of Appeals upheld record damages in April against the independent weekly newsmagazine Le Journal Hebdomadaire in a defamation suit brought by Claude Moniquet, head of the Brussels-based European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center. A lower court had awarded 3 million dirhams (US$359,700) in damages to Moniquet, who said Le Journal Hebdomadaire had defamed him in a six-page critique questioning the independence of his think tank’s report on the disputed Western Sahara, which was annexed by Morocco three decades ago. The court also fined the magazine 100,000 dirhams (US$12,000). Le Journal Hebdomadaire withdrew from both the trial and the appeal after it was barred from introducing an expert witness. The courts provided no explanation for how they reached the damage award, which was unprecedented in such a case. The damages threatened the magazine’s financial viability.

The independent weeklies TelQuel, Al-Ousbouiya al-Jadida, Al-Ayam, and Al-Ahdath al-Maghribiya, were convicted in May 2005 of defaming Touria Bouabid, head of a nongovernmental children’s assistance organization, when they wrote that police officers had questioned Bouabid on suspicion of embezzlement. All four papers had relied on the same police source, but the information turned out to be false. The papers immediately issued corrections and apologies, but the suit proceeded. Each paper was fined a relatively small amount–except TelQuel, which was ordered by a lower court to pay 900,000 dirhams (US$107,900). A Casablanca appeals court upheld the conviction but reduced the damages to 500,000 dirhams (US$60,000) in February.

The outspoken TelQuel had been in the judicial system’s crosshairs in the past. On December 29, 2005, the Casablanca Court of Appeals upheld the libel convictions of Publisher Ahmed Reda Benchemsi and Editor Karim Boukhari after they published an article saying that a female member of the Moroccan parliament was once a “chiekha,” the equivalent of a cabaret dancer. The article referred to her by the pseudonym Asmaa. The court upheld the journalists’ two-month suspended sentences and awarded the plaintiff 800,000 dirhams (US$95,900) in damages. Both Touria Bouabid and the member of parliament absolved TelQuel of having to pay the damages, allowing the weekly to continue publishing.

In May, Idris Shahtan, editor of the Arabic-language weekly Al-Mishaal, received a four-month suspended sentence and was fined 100,000 dirhams (US$12,000) after the Casablanca Court of Appeals upheld his conviction on charges of offending a foreign head of state. The charge stemmed from the weekly’s publication in May 2005 of a cartoon of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika together with a satirical article about his private life.

Abdelaziz Koukas, publisher and editor of the independent weekly Al-Ousbouiya al-Jadida, went on trial in mid-March on charges of defaming the monarchy. Koukas published a June 2005 front-page interview with Nadia Yassine, the daughter of Sheikh Abd al-Salam Yassine, head of the outlawed Islamist organization Justice and Charity. Yassine criticized the monarchy, a constitutional offense, and said Morocco would fare better as a republic. Koukas faced three to five years in prison and a fine of up to 100,000 dirhams. The weekly faced possible closure. The court adjourned the trial indefinitely, but Koukas can be summoned at any time, CPJ sources said.

In February, Nour Eddine Miftah, editor of the independent weekly Al-Ayam, and Meriem Moukrim, a journalist for the weekly, were convicted by a Casablanca court of disturbing public order by publishing “false” articles. Both received a four-month suspended sentence and were fined 100,000 dirhams for a piece by Moukrim in which the king’s personal doctor revealed details of the private lives of the monarchs he had served. The story detailed the activities of the royal harems during the reigns of Mohammed V and his son Hassan II.

The government also resorted to acts of intimidation against independent publications. Authorities appeared to orchestrate February protests against Le Journal Hebdomadaire after the weekly published a photograph of a reader holding an edition of the Paris daily France Soir that reproduced Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Le Journal Hebdomadaire published the photograph as part of a 10-page chronology of events related to the controversial drawings.

The Casablanca magazine said that several minibuses with J license plates, which signify they belong to the Casablanca city government, brought about 100 people to demonstrate outside its offices for two days in mid-February. Reporters and photographers witnessed municipal employees giving the “protesters” placards and Moroccan flags. Photographs of the vehicles and the employees were taken by Le Journal Hebdomadaire and several other independent publications, including the Arabic-language dailies Al-Ahdath al-Maghribiya and Assabah.

Le Journal Hebdomadaire accused the Interior Ministry, which oversees the Casablanca local government, of organizing the protests. The weekly interviewed several supposed protestors who acknowledged that authorities had recruited them. Nabil Benabdallah, minister of communications, denied the government played any part in the demonstrations.

Local journalists told CPJ that no members of the press were in prison in Morocco following the release of Anas Tadili, editor of the weekly Akhbar al-Ousboue. He was freed in January after completing a sentence for alleged currency violations; journalists and human rights groups believed the case was in reprisal for an April 2004 article alleging that Fathallah Oualalou, Morocco’s minister of finance and privatization, was homosexual. The journalist had previously served a one-year sentence for defaming Oualalou.

The country’s onerous 2002 Press Code leaves journalists working under the constant threat of prosecution. The press law criminalizes criticizing the king, “defaming” the monarchy, and challenging Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara.

Despite a 2005 promise by Minister of Communications Benabdallah to end imprisonment as a punishment for these offenses, violators continue to face possible prison sentences of up to five years. The government also has the power to revoke publication licenses, suspend newspapers, and confiscate editions deemed to threaten public order.

Independent journalist Ali Lmrabet remains banned from writing in the Moroccan press following a 2005 conviction for defaming a previously unknown group called the Association of Relatives of Saharawi Victims of Repression. The group sued after he wrote an article for the Madrid-based daily El Mundo that referred to the Saharawi people in the Algerian city of Tindouf as refugees, contradicting the Moroccan government’s position that they are prisoners of the rebel Polisario Front. The Polisario, which is fighting for the independence of neighboring Western Sahara, operates mostly out of Algeria. Although neither the association nor its spokesman, Ahmed Khier, was mentioned in the article, the criminal court convicted Lmrabet in April 2005.

In February 2006, Moroccan censors banned an edition of El Mundo that carried an Lmrabet article alleging that King Mohammed VI was restricting the movements of the royal mother.

Medi 1 SAT, the country’s first private satellite television channel, went on the air on December 1. The Tangiers-based channel is operated by Medi 1, a media group backed by French President Jacques Chirac and the late King Hassan II. It airs in Arabic and French, competing against the two state-owned TV channels, RTM and 2M. A CPJ source noted that Medi 1 SAT’s backers are pro-government, so its arrival would not necessarily expand the range of information available to viewers.