Press freedom continued its downward slide, belying Morocco’s carefully
burnished image as a liberalizing country with a free press. Outspoken journalists found themselves in court, in prison, or out of work following a rash of politicized court cases, while the government of King Mohammed VI unveiled a restrictive new press bill. On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, CPJ designated Morocco as one of the world’s worst backsliders on press freedom.
Media repression picked up where it left off in December 2006, when then-Prime Minister Driss Jettou suspended for two months the independent Arabic-language weekly Nichane for running a 10-page cover story analyzing popular jokes about religion, sex, and politics. In January, a Moroccan court handed down a three-year suspended prison sentence to Driss Ksikes, then director and editor of the magazine, and to reporter Sanaa al-Aji for denigrating Islam, an offense under Morocco’s press law of 2002. The journalists were also fined 80,000 dirhams (US$10,400) each. The prison terms could be imposed if either journalist were convicted of a future offense. Ksikes later resigned from the magazine citing, in part, concern that the suspended sentence could be reactivated if he were swept up in another press case.
The government response was set in motion when an Islamist Web site attacked Nichane for publishing “un-Islamic” material. Word of the Nichane story quickly spread to Kuwait, where the country’s political opposition in parliament seized the moment to embarrass Emir Sabah al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah, who was traveling in Morocco at the time, and criticize him for visiting a country that showed no respect for Islam. Moroccan officials defended the Nichane ban and the suspended prison sentences for Ksikes and al-Aji as a way to outflank the country’s powerful Islamist opposition. Some journalists, however, said the case was a means of striking back at Ksikes, who had published stories critical of the monarchy.
Officials used other judicial tactics to crack down on dissident journalists. In February, the country lost its leading independent publisher when Aboubakr Jamaï, of the weekly newsmagazine Le Journal Hebdomadaire, left the country as judicial authorities prepared to seize his assets in the wake of a record-breaking defamation judgment in 2006. Jamaï and a colleague were ordered to pay 3 million dirhams (US$395,000) to the head of a Brussels-based think tank, who claimed Le Journal Hebdomadaire had defamed him in a six-page article questioning the independence of the organization’s report on the disputed Western Sahara. The judgment was widely billed as political retribution for Jamaï’s uncompromising coverage of the king and powerful political interests. A palace source told the magazine that officials had been incensed by an unflattering 2005 cover photo of the king, triggering the exorbitant damages.
Moroccan journalists remained vulnerable to a stable of prohibitions outlined in the country’s restrictive press code, which criminalizes offending the king, “defaming” the monarchy, insulting Islam or state institutions, and offending Morocco’s “territorial integrity” (the last being code for the country’s claim to the Western Sahara). Maximum penalties include up to five years in jail; the government also has the power to revoke publication licenses, suspend newspapers, and confiscate editions deemed threatening to public order.
The government unveiled a press bill that would keep in place tough criminal penalties and possibly open the door to other restrictions on the news media. Though touted by officials as a step forward, the draft legislation left intact most existing restrictions, retained prison penalties for many so-called press offenses, and increased maximum fines tenfold, from 100,000 dirhams (US$13,000) to 1 million dirhams (US$130,000). It also called for the creation of a “national press council,” whose 15 members would be appointed by the king, journalists, and publishers. One version of the measure would grant the council the power to ban journalists from working in their profession, and to levy economic sanctions against newspaper journalists who violate a yet-to-be-drafted ethics code. Press syndicate head Younes Moujahid said some provisions were being eased as work on the draft continued. The bill was pending in late year.
In response to the country’s plummeting press situation, a CPJ delegation traveled to Rabat and Casablanca in April, spending 10 days meeting with Moroccan journalists and top government officials. In meetings with CPJ, then-Prime Minister Jettou and then-Communications Minister Nabil Benabdallah denied government involvement in a string of excessive libel judgments against independent journalists dating to 2005, and claimed that the court case against Jamaï “fell from heaven” and was “in the hands of the judiciary.” “The four or five problems we had to face were each time handled by the judiciary,” Jettou said. “We abide by the rule of law in this country.”
But government officials, including those who met with CPJ, openly acknowledged problems with the independence of the country’s judiciary. Abbas al-Fassi, then minister of state without portfolio, admonished judges in February “to listen to the voice of their conscience, not to instructions given through their cellular phones.” Officials continued to emphasize that press freedom was strong compared to the past and to prevailing conditions in the Arab world. “We have never sought to cause prejudice to our newspapers or journalists,” Jettou told CPJ. “We are proud to have the freest and the most dynamic press in the region.” Benabdallah pledged to CPJ that “the days of imprisoning journalists in Morocco are over.”
Their words, however, were contradicted by their government’s actions. As September parliamentary elections approached, outspoken Moroccan journalists were targeted for government reprisals. On August 4, police seized copies of the beleaguered Nichane from newsstands and confiscated copies of its sister weekly, the French-language TelQuel, as it came off the press. The seizures came after Nichane published an editorial that questioned the point of legislative elections since King Mohammed VI controlled all facets of government. TelQuel Publisher Ahmed Benchemsi, who wrote the editorial, was charged on August 6 with failing to show “due respect to the king” under Article 41 of the Moroccan Press and Publication Law. He faced between three and five years in prison and a fine of up to 100,000 dirhams (US$13,000).
One week later, Publisher Abderrahim Ariri and journalist Mustafa Hormatallah of the Moroccan weekly Al-Watan al-An were convicted by a criminal court in Casablanca of “possession of stolen items” under the Moroccan Penal Code. The men were charged shortly after the paper reproduced a secret government document detailing the security service’s monitoring of jihadist Web sites. Hormatallah was sentenced to eight months in jail, while Ariri received a six-month suspended sentence. They were each fined 1,000 dirhams (US$130). Hormatallah was released in September, pending an appeal.
As the summer press crackdown reached its height, Benabdallah continued to spin the country’s press freedom record. “There are no red lines. However, insolence and press freedom do not form a rhyme,” he told the daily L’Economiste in August. He added, “There are no taboos, provided one abides by the required forms of decency.”
Moroccan journalists said the wave of criminal prosecutions further dissuaded journalists from tackling sensitive topics such as the monarchy and powerful political personalities. The deteriorating conditions did not spur close allies, including the United States, to publicly express disapproval. In fact, just a week before Ariri and Hormatallah were convicted, the U.S. government-backed Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) approved a five-year, $697.5 million economic aid package to Morocco—the largest grant since the agency 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.”