Blogger faces criminal defamation charges in Morocco

New York, March 5, 2009–The Committee to Protect Journalists calls for the immediate release of a Moroccan blogger who is being held on charges of defaming a prosecutor in the northern part of the country.

Hassan Barhon, 39, a blogger who is frequently involved in online campaigns against corruption, was detained and sent to jail in the city of Tetouan on February 25. He is also a founding member of a national association for electronic journalism in Morocco.

Barhon regularly posts hundreds of photos and video reports on his blog and on popular photo and video hosting sites that chronicle alleged corruption and collusion with criminals by local and city government officials. Barhon’s detention is related to a petition he circulated that called Mohamed Masmouki, prosecutor-general for the king of Morocco at Tetouan’s court of appeals, a “dangerous criminal,” his lawyer, Habib Hajji, told CPJ. Scores of citizens, journalists, and rights activists signed the petition, which accused Masmouki of undermining “people’s sacred beliefs and the state institutions” and called for the need to put him on a “popular trial,” a group called the Moroccan Association of Bloggers said in a press release.

Most lawyers in Tetouan refused to defend Barhon because of his critical and often controversial articles and views. Local lawyers were among his targets, journalists and rights activists told CPJ.                                                                                

Barhon was charged under Article 263 of the penal code with defaming a “member of the judicial body.” He is due to appear before a misdemeanor court in Tetouan on Friday. The punishment for this charge is up to five years in prison, said Hajji.

“The Moroccan authorities must stop criminalizing freedom of expression and punishing critical bloggers and journalists,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator.“Morocco cannot pursue criminal proceedings for defamation, which is a civil matter, while at the same time claiming that the country continues to make progress in the field of press freedom.”

Press freedom has been declining in Morocco in recent years, according to CPJ research. In September, a court in Agadir, in the southwestern part of the country, sentenced blogger Mohamed Erraji, following a closed trial that lasted barely 10 minutes, to two years imprisonment and a fine of 5,000 dirhams (US$626) for “failing to respect the king.” Local and international outcries, including a CPJ letter to King Mohammed VI, led to Erraji’s quick release.