Moroccan journalists charged for publishing secret government documents

New York, July 24, 2007—Two Moroccan journalists detained for more than a week were charged today with possessing classified documents after they recently published secret government papers regarding terrorist threats against Morocco.

The Casablanca public prosecutor charged Abderrahim Ariri, publisher of the Moroccan weekly Al-Watan Al An and Mustafa Hormatallah, a journalist for the paper, with “concealing items derived from a crime” under article 571 of the Moroccan Penal Code, said the journalists’ lawyer, Jalal Taher. Taher told CPJ that it is not clear what his client specifically concealed and that they expect to find out in court on Thursday when the public prosecutor will give more details. If convicted, the journalists face up to five years in prison and a fine.

“These charges should be dismissed at once,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “These two journalists are being punished for doing what good journalists are supposed to do by publishing news that is clearly in the public interest.”

On July 14, Al-Watan Al An published an article about secret government documents that reveal terrorist threats against Morocco. The weekly reproduced one of the purported secret documents of the General Directorate for Territorial Surveillance, a Moroccan security agency, which discussed the monitoring of jihadist Web sites.

The reproduced document cited an online video in which militants threatened to wage jihad against Morocco and other North African states. It said the video contained pictures showing jihadists imprisoned in Morocco, followed by images of U.S. President George Bush talking to the leaders of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. Although the video focuses heavily on Moroccan King Mohammed VI’s meeting with Bush, Al-Watan Al An deleted the king’s name from the directorate’s document.

Staff at Al-Watan Al An told CPJ that at around the time of the journalists’ detention about 20 plainclothes security agents raided the newspaper’s Casablanca office and confiscated part of Al-Watan Al An’s archives and Ariri’s personal computer.

Ariri and Hormatallah were summoned for questioning by police in Casablanca on July 17 and detained pending investigation for allegedly revealing national defense secrets. Ariri was released today and told CPJ that the prosecutor extended Hormatallah’s detention until Thursday because the journalist had authored the article relating to the secret documents.

Al-Watan Al An frequently publishes stories critical of the Moroccan authorities. In March, it ran a story that criticized the king and palace officials for failing to cooperate with the Moroccan press.

The National Committee Backing Al-Watan Al An¸ a group composed of journalists, activists, lawyers, and politicians, was set up to support the journalists. The committee’s coordinator Mohammed Hafeed told CPJ that its members gathered outside the paper’s offices on Saturday to show their support.

In a special report released earlier this month, CPJ noted that press freedoms in Morocco have notably regressed in recent years. Independent journalists have been the targets of a series of politicized court cases, financial pressures, and harassment from authorities.