Morocco’s Supreme Court upholds journalist’s 7-month jail sentence

New York, February 21, 2008—The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by the Moroccan Supreme Court’s decision to uphold a seven-month jail sentence against journalist Mustafa Hormatallah.

Hormatallah, a member of the editorial board of the Moroccan weekly Al-Watan Al An, was convicted in August 2007 of possession of stolen documents. The conviction concerned an article he wrote about a secret government document that discussed terrorist threats against Morocco.

On February 13, the Supreme Court rejected Hormatallah’s appeal, and upheld a September Casablanca appeals court prison sentence, according to Al-Watan Al An Publisher Abderrahim Ariri and news reports. Ariri told CPJ today that the court also confirmed his own five-month suspended jail sentence. On Tuesday, security officials arrested Hormatallah in front of his Casablanca home and transferred him to the city’s Akacha prison, according to a statement issued by the weekly yesterday.

“It’s an outrage that Mustafa Hormatallah is in jail simply for doing his job in a country that touts itself as ‘democratic,’” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “By jailing yet another journalist, Morocco has further damaged its image as a country that tolerates independent journalism and has underscored the alarming erosion of press freedom there in recent years.”

Ariri told CPJ that Hormatallah was detained in mid-July and had spent 53 days in jail before being released pending his appeal to the Supreme Court. The journalist will now have to serve five months to complete his sentence, Ariri said, unless he receives a pardon. The appeals court had reduced both their sentences by one month. Ariri told CPJ that the court also upheld a fine of 1,000 dirhams (US$120) against Ariri and Hormatallah.

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. The two journalists were specifically convicted of “concealing items derived from a crime” under article 571 of the Moroccan Penal Code.

Ariri told CPJ in August 2007 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.”

Al-Watan Al An frequently publishes stories critical of the Moroccan authorities. In March 2007, it ran a story that criticized the king and palace officials for failing to cooperate with the Moroccan press.

Over the last five years Morocco, along with Tunisia, has been the Arab world’s leading jailer of journalists, with four sentenced to prison terms, including Hormatallah.

In a special report released in July 2007, 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.