Moroccan journalists face charges of defaming Qaddafi

New York, May 18, 2009–The Committee to Protect Journalists is dismayed by the start of court proceedings today against five Moroccan journalists charged with “publicly harming” Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, left, and “hurting his dignity.”

The brief court hearing, attended by a CPJ representative, was adjourned until June 1 at the request of the journalists’ lawyers, who learned today that the case was filed by the public prosecutor following a protest from the Libyan Embassy in Rabat. Under Article 52 of Morocco’s press law, the journalists face up to one year in jail and fines up to 100,000 dirhams (US$12,090) if convicted on the defamation charges.

Appearing in court today in Casablanca were Ali Anouzla, editor of the daily Al-Jarida Al-Oula; Mohamed Brini, editor of the daily Al-Ahdath Al-Magrebia; and Mokhtar Al-Ghizeawy, a reporter with the same newspaper. Rachid Niny, editor of Al-Massae, the country’s leading daily, did not attend in protest of the charges. Younes Meskini, a former reporter for Al-Massae and the fifth defendant, told CPJ that he did not receive a summons for today’s hearing.

The case stems from articles published by the three independent dailies in 2008 and early 2009. Anouzla’s November 18 opinion piece, headlined “We and the Arab Maghreb,” criticized not only Qaddafi, who seized power following a military coup 40 years ago, but his autocratic counterparts in neighboring Mauritania, Algeria, and Tunisia.

Al-Ahdath Al-Magrebia published three articles, including a February 26 piece on Qaddafi’s political treatise, Green Book, and a July 30 story on the arrest of the leader’s youngest son and daughter-in-law in Geneva for allegedly assaulting a Moroccan servant and Tunisian maid, Brini told CPJ. “We only published critical stories. Moroccan journalists struggled over the past decades to widen the margin of press freedom. It is unacceptable to see the Moroccan authorities yield to external pressure and influence and take us to court,” he told CPJ.

Al-Massae was targeted for quoting the Moroccan political analyst and former minister of communication, Larbi Messari, in a January 13 article as saying that “the positions taken by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez are similar to the Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s childish positions,” Meskini, the author, told CPJ.

“It is shameful that Moroccan authorities who repeatedly claim that they are paving the way for more independent journalism take three independent papers to court under pressure from one of the foremost enemies of press freedom in the world,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ program coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa. “We reiterate our solidarity with our Moroccan colleagues and urge the authorities to drop this case and bring Morocco’s press law into conformity with international standards.”

Hassan Semlali, lawyer for Al-Jarida Al-Oula, told CPJ that he would raise questions about procedural irregularities. “This is a freedom of opinion case. There is no defamation at all. Qaddafi used all of his weight to muzzle three dailies at the same time. If he succeeds, he will do his best to silence more newspapers in the Arab world.”

CPJ research concluded in May 2007 that Morocco was one of the world’s worst backsliders on press freedom. That year, high-ranking Moroccan officials told a CPJ delegation that they were reforming the press law to ease the most onerous restrictions. To date, however, little progress has been made toward bringing the law in line with international standards for free expression. Journalists continue to be judicially harassed, silenced, and assaulted.