Al-Jazeera journalist fined over reporting social unrest

New York, July 11, 2008—A Rabat court fined Hassan Rachidi, Al-Jazeera’s Morocco bureau chief, 50,000 dirhams (nearly $6,000) for maliciously “publishing false news” likely to “disrupt public order and spread panic among people.” Under Article 42 of Morocco’s 2002 Press Law, Rachidi had faced a sentence of a month to a year in prison and a fine of 1,200 dirhams to 100,000 dirhams. Authorities also suspended Rachidi’s press accreditation.

The case stemmed from Al-Jazeera coverage of social unrest that shook the southern city of Sidi Ifni on June 7. The Qatar-based satellite television station quoted an NGO source that claimed people died following clashes with the police, but made it clear that official sources denied any fatality. Other local and international media outlets reported the alleged deaths, but none of those were prosecuted.

“We condemn this unjustified and politically motivated verdict,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “We hope that this conviction is overturned on appeal and that our colleague is allowed to resume his job immediately.”

Khalid Soufiani, coordinator of Rachidi’s defense team, told CPJ that the verdict is “null because it has no legal ground whatsoever.” The failure of the court to grant more time to the defense team and to summon witnesses involved in the Sidi Ifny unrest, including high-ranking security officials, led the defense lawyers to walk out of the courtroom on July 4. “But we will make it to the court of appeal,” Soufiani said.

In 2005, the presiding judge, Mohamed El-Alawi, banned Ali Lmrabet, a prominent journalist from working in journalism for 10 years.

In early May, Moroccan authorities notified Al-Jazeera that the frequency it had used for the Rabat-based daily program about Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia was being withdrawn because of “technical and legal problems.” This sudden decision forced Al-Jazeera to begin broadcasting the regional roundup from its headquarters in Doha, Qatar.

The case against Rachdi prompted widespread expressions of solidarity among the media in Morocco and elsewhere in the region. Younous Mjahed, head of the National Syndicate of the Moroccan Press told CPJ that the case is unjustified and urged the authorities to bring it to a halt and give Rachidi back his accreditation card.

In a special report released in July 2007, CPJ found that press freedom in Morocco has notably regressed in recent years, and that independent journalists have been targeted in a series of politicized court cases.