Morocco: Government confiscates newsweeklies, charges publisher

New York, August 6, 2007— The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the Moroccan government’s seizure of the editions of two independent newsweeklies over the weekend. Authorities alleged that the magazines disrespected King Mohammed VI and violated public morality.

On Saturday, 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 the printing press used by both magazines, local journalists told CPJ.

“We condemn this act of flagrant censorship and call on Moroccan officials to release both confiscated editions at once,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “The seizure of Nichane and TelQuel is further evidence that press freedom is being sharply eroded as Morocco continues to damage its reputation as a country that tolerates critical journalism.”

Some 50,000 non-assembled copies of TelQuel were destroyed at the printing house, according to sources at TelQuel. Moroccan Prime Minister Driss Jettou announced the Nichane seizure that same day, stating that the magazine had failed to show “due respect” to the king and had published articles “containing expressions contrary to morality that offend the feelings of Muslims.”

Ahmed Benchemsi, publisher of both weeklies, was formally charged earlier today with failing to show “the due respect to the King” under Article 41 of the Moroccan Press Law. He was summoned to appear in court in Casablanca on August 24 and could face between three to five years in prison and a fine up to 100,000 dirhams (US$11,000) if convicted.

An editorial written by Benchemsi and published in Nichane over the weekend triggered the seizures of the two magazines, according to journalists at TelQuel. The editorial took issue with King Mohammed VI’s commitment to democracy and questioned the use of legislative elections slated for September 7, as long as the king firmly controls all powers. The same editorial was slated to run in French in TelQuel until authorities confiscated it. Authorities also objected to an article about sexuality in Arab culture that ran in Nichane.

In a separate development on Monday, police visited the printer of the independent weekly Le Journal Hebdomadaire and demanded to see the magazine’s proofs, several journalists told CPJ. After a six-hour delay police approved printing.

The government previously banned Nichane in December 2006 for allegedly denigrating Islam when the magazine ran a 10-page article analyzing popular jokes about religion, sex, and politics. In January, a court handed down three-year suspended sentences and fines to the paper’s editor and a reporter. TelQuel has also been the target of a numerous politically motivated court judgments because of its political coverage.

Saturday’s seizures came amid growing concerns among Moroccan journalists about press freedom.

A Casablanca court will begin hearing the case on Tuesday of Abderrahim Ariri, publisher the independent weekly Al Watan Al An and Mostafa Hormatallah, a reporter for the paper. Both were charged in July with possessing classified documents after they published a secret government document regarding terrorist threats against Morocco. Both journalists were arrested in July 17, and Hormatallah remains behind bars.

On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, CPJ designated Morocco as one of the world’s worst backsliders on press freedom. Last month CPJ released a special report noting 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.