Court slams journalist with heavy damages

New York, October 31, 2008–The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns a Moroccan appeals court decision to uphold heavy damages and a fine against an editor of a leading independent daily in a defamation case, which could force the paper to close.

On Thursday, a Rabat court of appeals upheld a March lower court decision that ordered Rachid Niny, managing editor of Al-Massae, to pay 6 million dirhams (US$688,043) in damages and a fine of 120,000 dirhams (US$13,759) for defaming four deputy prosecutors.

The plaintiffs, who were based in the northern city of Ksar El Kebir, filed a defamation complaint in February against Niny because an article in his paper had referred to one of them as gay, although without naming him, reported Agence France-Presse.

“The scale of these damages and the fine against Al-Massae appear to have only one purpose–to bring down the newspaper,” said CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney. “This is part of an ongoing campaign to cripple Morocco’s independent press through defamation suits. We call on Morocco’s Supreme Court to overturn this ruling on appeal.”

Tawfik Bouachrine, editor of Al-Massae told CPJ that “this is an attempt to impose the death penalty on our newspaper. Those who are behind this politically motivated ruling are fully aware that we cannot pay such an enormous fine.”

The editor also said the newspaper will appeal the verdict at the court of cassation.

In April 2007, a CPJ delegation met with high-ranking Moroccan officials in Rabat and voiced concern about a troubling pattern of punitive judicial sanctions and crippling fines targeted at independent papers, leading prominent editors like Aboubaker Jamai of Le Journal Hebdomadaire and Driss Ksikes of Nichane, respectively, to go into exile and to abandon journalism.

In a special report released in July 2007, CPJ noted that press freedom in Morocco has notably regressed. Independent journalists have been the targets of a series of politicized court cases, financial pressure, and harassment from authorities. The country’s restrictive press code criminalizes offending the king, defaming the monarchy, insulting Islam or state institutions, and offending Morocco’s “territorial integrity.” In 2007, Morocco joined Tunisia as the Arab world’s leading jailer of journalists.