Morocco continued to backslide on press freedom as independent journalists and news outlets were targeted in a series of politicized court cases. In May, the National Syndicate for Moroccan Press noted a “dangerous trend” in which authorities were “imposing exaggerated fines in defamation cases, resorting to preventive arrest of journalists … banning newspapers and instructing printers to keep an eye on the content of what they print.”
The tactics were reflected in the Supreme Court’s February decision to uphold the conviction and prison sentence handed down to journalist Mustafa Hormatallah of the independent weekly Al-Watan al-An for “receiving documents through criminal means.” The court also upheld a suspended sentence against publisher Abderrahim Ariri.
The case stemmed from a July 2007 article describing potential terrorist threats and citing a document from the General Directorate for Territorial Surveillance, a Moroccan security agency, that discussed the monitoring of jihadist Web sites. Hormatallah and Ariri were convicted in August 2007 but appealed the verdict. Hormatallah’s eventual imprisonment sparked a wave of indignation, locally and internationally; the journalist himself staged a hunger strike in May at Akacha Prison in Casablanca.
Dozens of well-wishers, including relatives, friends, Moroccan press syndicate representatives, and human rights activists flocked to the notorious prison to greet Hormatallah when he was finally freed in July. “You have no idea how your solidarity and action helped make my detention bearable and strengthened my commitment to independent journalism,” Hormatallah told CPJ after he emerged from the prison, which he called a “cemetery for the living.” He said the “huge campaign of local and international solidarity” would “bear fruits not only in Morocco, but also in neighboring North African countries like Algeria, Mauritania, and Tunisia.”
Local and international attention may have played a role in the case of Ahmed Benchemsi, editor of the independent weekly Nichane and its sister weekly, the French-language TelQuel. In September, a Casablanca court indefinitely adjourned a criminal case charging him with failure to show “due respect to the king.” The case was triggered by an August 2007 editorial in Nichane that questioned the point of holding legislative elections since King Mohammed VI controlled the country’s institutions so firmly. Under Article 41 of the Moroccan Press and Publication Law, Benchemsi faced up to five years in prison.
Mohamed Erraji, a contributor to the Moroccan news Web site HesPress, faced the same charge in a court in the southwestern city of Agadir. After a farcical 10-minute trial–held in the absence of his defense lawyer–Erraji was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison. Erraji’s crime was writing an opinion piece criticizing the king for rewarding people who praise him. “We need to admit that what has destroyed our country and made it plummet to this embarrassing level in all international rankings, is this economy of dispersing gratuities, which benefits the lucky sons and daughters of this country and overlooks the rest,” Erraji wrote.
Eight days later, after an international outcry, an appellate court in Agadir overturned the conviction. “My happiness is mixed with feelings of sadness,” Erraji told CPJ after the decision. “It never occurred to me that one day I would be arbitrarily accused of showing disrespect toward the king, which is a grave accusation.”
The use of the judiciary to settle political scores with critical journalists has been a major source of concern for several years, according to CPJ research. Many of the country’s top writers and editors have been silenced or forced into exile after politicized court cases. “The lack of independence of the judiciary remains a huge obstacle on the road to any progress in press freedom,” the Moroccan press syndicate said in its May report. “It is impossible to achieve any reform as long as courts still issue rulings that prevent journalists from doing their jobs.”
In June, a Rabat court ordered the independent daily Al-Jarida al-Oula to stop publishing victim testimony before the royal Equity and Reconciliation Commission. The testimony described human rights abuses said to have occurred between 1960 and 1999. The order came in response to a complaint from the state-run Consultative Council for Human Rights, which is in charge of the archives of the now-dissolved reconciliation commission. Mohammed VI established the commission in 2003 to help turn the page on the ruthless rule of his father, Hassan II. Al-Jarida al-Oula appealed the ruling even as it continued to publish excerpts describing torture, murders, and forced disappearances.
Police obstructed and abused reporters in some cases, CPJ found. Security forces assaulted BBC journalist Mustapha Bakkali, for example, while he was covering a demonstration in front of parliament in April, the press syndicate said. Bakkali, who was rendered unconscious, was taken by ambulance to a local hospital for treatment.
Through appointment powers, the king wielded considerable control over domestic broadcasters. Mohammed VI has authority to name the heads of all public radio and television stations, and he appoints the president and four board members of the High Authority for Audio-Visual Communication, which issues broadcast licenses.
Authorities used regulatory means to obstruct a foreign broadcaster. In May, the National Agency for Telecom Technical Regulation ordered Al-Jazeera to halt transmission of a Rabat-based regional news program for unspecified “technical and legal” reasons. The decision, which came without warning, forced Al-Jazeera to begin broadcasting the regional roundup from its headquarters in Doha, Qatar. The move came immediately after Al-Jazeera aired critical remarks from Egyptian journalist Hassanein Heykal about the late Hassan II.
In July, a Rabat court fined Al-Jazeera Bureau Chief Hassan Rachidi 50,000 dirhams (US$6,000) and suspended his press accreditation for “publishing false news” likely to “disrupt public order and spread panic among people.” The charge was sparked by Al-Jazeera’s coverage of unrest in the southern city of Sidi Ifni. The Qatar-based satellite television station quoted a source as saying that clashes with police had led to fatalities. The government denied any deaths had occurred.
Authorities appeared to be acting in the spirit of a repressive new document, adopted by the council of Arab information ministers in February, that seeks to create a framework to regulate satellite television.
Called the “Principles for Organizing Satellite Radio and TV Broadcasting in the Arab Region,” the document seeks to ban material that has “negative influence on social peace and national unity,” that contradicts “the principles of Arab solidarity,” or that insults “leaders or national and religious symbols.” The document calls on each of the 22 member states to take “necessary legislative measures to deal with violations,” including the confiscation of equipment and the withdrawal of licenses.
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