July 29, 2009
On the eve of the 10th anniversary of your ascent to the throne, the Committee to Protect Journalists is writing to express our disappointment with the continued use of the courts to suppress freedom of expression. International human rights groups praised Morocco before your ascension to the throne for having made significant steps toward the rule of law. Unfortunately, just a few years later it was among the 10 nations worldwide where press freedom had deteriorated the most.
The government has consistently used the judiciary to settle scores with critical journalists and failed to initiate a press law that would end the criminalization of freedom of expression.
Rising attacks on critical journalists–including jail sentences and court rulings that impose crippling fines and strip journalists of the right to practice their profession–led CPJ to send a fact-finding mission to Morocco in 2007. High-ranking officials, including former Prime Minister Driss Jettou, told the CPJ delegation that Moroccan authorities would do their best to promote and protect press freedom and that a less restrictive press law would soon be passed by parliament, following “broad consultations” with media professionals.
Yet, to date, the number of jail sentences and excessive fines handed down to critical journalists in defamation cases is still on the rise, and journalists and human rights lawyers continue to deplore the absence of an independent judiciary, which even former minister and current Prime Minister Abbas Al-Fassi acknowledged to be the case in a 2007 interview with Al-Massae, the country’s leading daily.
For example, on July 10, more than 20 dailies and weeklies were published without editorials to protest recent court decisions imposing heavy fines on three dailies and a financial monthly for defamation. The most outrageous of these verdicts was issued on June 29 when a Casablanca court ordered Al-Massae, Al-Jarida Al-Oula and Al-Ahdath Al-Maghrebia to each pay a fine of 100,000 dirhams (US$12,484) and damages of 1 million dirhams (US$125,213) to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.
Many journalists and human rights lawyers told CPJ that the main threat hovering over independent journalism in Morocco is a lack of judicial independence. “The real problem does not stem from the restrictive press law, but mainly from the judiciary itself, particularly when the Executive Branch is behind a court case filed against a journalist,” a prominent human rights lawyer told CPJ.
The distribution of the July 15 issue of the French daily Le Monde was delayed and the French weekly Le Courrier International for the week of July 9-15 was banned, reported French and Moroccan papers. Le Monde carried a critical opinion piece by award-winning journalist Aboubakr Jamai, former editor of the Moroccan weekly Le Journal Hebdomadaire, in which he described your reign as characterized by a “war against independent journalism fuelled by bans, judicial repression and advertisers’ boycotts.” Jamai was forced into exile following a politically motivated and record-breaking defamation ruling in 2006. The banned issue of Le Courrier International had republished an article previously run by Le Journal Hebdomadaire titled, “King Mohammed VI, as rich as ever,” alongside a new cartoon deemed defamatory by Moroccan authorities.
In 2007, we asked you to institute seven specific measures to reform the way the media and the government interact. Unfortunately, to date all of those measures remain unfulfilled, including the decriminalization of defamation. We urge you again to instruct authorities to initiate new legislation that would abide by international standards for freedom of expression and turn the page on jailing our colleagues or silencing them through crippling fines. Freedom of expression, a cornerstone of democracy, cannot be protected under a restrictive press law or when the independence of the judiciary is not fully guaranteed.
Thank you for your attention to these matters. We look forward to your reply.