Casablanca court hands down prison sentences against two journalists

New York, August 15, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the prison sentences handed down today against two Moroccan journalists who published a secret government document about terrorist threats against Morocco.

Abderrahim Ariri, publisher of the Moroccan weekly Al-Watan Al An, and Mustafa Hormatallah, a journalist for the paper, were convicted by a criminal court in Casablanca of “concealing items derived from a crime” under article 571 of the Moroccan Penal Code, Ariri told CPJ. He said the court sentenced Hormatallah to eight months in jail, while Ariri received a six-month suspended sentence. Ariri told CPJ that they were each fined 1,000 dirhams (US$120). He said they plan to appeal the decision.

“These politicized convictions are the latest in a series of official actions targeting independent journalists, and they reflect a steady erosion of press freedoms in Morocco,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “Jailing journalists for publishing information that is clearly within the public interest violates basic norms for freedom of expression and belies Morocco’s declared support for a free and open press. We hope that the appeals court reverses this unjust verdict and that our colleague Mustafa Hormatallah is freed.”

The case against Ariri and Hormatallah stems from a July 14 article in Al-Watan Al An 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.

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 on July 24, but Hormatallah has remained behind bars and is now officially serving his eight-month sentence.

Ariri told CPJ that the Moroccan authorities “wanted to humiliate us by choosing this kind of accusation usually brought against those who steal cattle and animals. So they used the penal code against us, instead of the press law. We did not hide the documents they accused us of hiding; we did not conceal them. We published them.”

Ariri said the trial and sentence given to them was the result of the military becoming fed up with a newspaper that specializes in military and security issues. “It’s not a trial because of the publication of documents, it is the trial of the editorial line of our paper,” he said. “This trial is a message to all Moroccan journalists: The army is warning every Moroccan journalist to beware of getting close to the barracks.”

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.

Press freedom has deteriorated sharply in Morocco in recent weeks. On August 4, Moroccan police seized copies of the Arabic-language weekly Nichane from newsstands and other locations around the country and confiscated printed copies of its sister weekly, the French-language TelQuel at their printing press. The seizures came after Nichane published an editorial that questioned the use of legislative elections slated for September 7, as long as King Mohammed VI firmly controls all powers.

Ahmed Benchemsi, publisher of both weeklies, was formally charged on August 6 with failing to show “due respect to the king” under Article 41 of the Moroccan Press and Publication Law and could face between three and five years in prison and a fine of up to 100,000 dirhams (US$11,000) if convicted.

Today’s verdict against Ariri and Hormatallah comes one week after the U.S. government-backed Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) approved a five-year $697.5 million economic aid package to Morocco—the largest such MCC grant since it was formed in January 2004.

MCC is a self-described U.S. government corporation “based on the principle that aid is most effective when it reinforces good governance, economic freedom, and investments in people that promote economic growth and elimination of extreme poverty.” Millennium Challenge grants provide development assistance to allied nations but are contingent on a number of factors, including press freedom.

“We’re concerned that MCC’s board of directors did not take a careful look at Morocco’s worsening press freedom record in deciding to award this grant,” Simon said.

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.