Moroccan paper closed amid increasing attacks on press

New York, September 30, 2009—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the closure of a Moroccan independent daily amid an escalating government campaign to silence critical journalists. On Tuesday, police prevented Taoufik Bouachrine, managing publisher and editor of the daily Akhbar al-Youm, and dozens of staff members from entering the offices of the Casablanca-based newspaper.

The sudden move followed a statement from the Ministry of the Interior accusing the independent daily of “blatant disrespect to a member of the royal family” for publishing in its September 26-27 weekend edition a “cartoon on a strictly private wedding ceremony organized by the royal family.” Prince Moulay Ismail, the cousin of King Mohammed VI, was married in a ceremony that, though private, had generated considerable interest and coverage in local newspapers.

Police detained and interrogated Bouachrine and cartoonist Khaled Kadar for more than 24 hours on Tuesday and Wednesday in Casablanca, lawyers told CPJ. On Wednesday, a CPJ representative observed police cordoning off Akhbar al-Youm offices, where journalists and employees were denied access for the second consecutive day.

Lawyers told CPJ that the allegations against Akhbar al-Youm are groundless and that the Ministry of the Interior has no legal authority to shutter a newspaper unilaterally. Article 77 of the Moroccan Press Law goes only so far as to authorize the ministry to ban a single issue of a periodical deemed disrespectful to the royal family.

“We urge King Mohammed VI to order an immediate end to the arbitrary siege of Akhbar al-Youm and to immediately back the right of our colleagues to do their job without police or judicial harassment,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. “The time has come for a regime that constantly pays lip service to democracy to turn the page on abusing the law to settle scores with critical journalists.”

Akhbar al-Youm intends to file suit against the interior minister on charges of abuse of power, according to a local news account. The National Syndicate of the Moroccan Press strongly denounced the closure of the independent daily and said that the government committed a “flagrant violation of Moroccan law,” local papers reported on Wednesday.

Administrative and judicial attacks on critical journalists have been reported throughout the year, drawing concern from even members of the press who are close to the government. On Tuesday, the daily Al-Ittihad al-Ishtiraki, owned by one of the country’s ruling political parties, complained about government pressure and argued that the era of Soviet-style journalism was over in Morocco.

The same day, editor Ali Anouzla and reporter Bochra Daou of the independent daily al Jarida al Oula were summoned by a misdemeanor court in Rabat to answer charges of “intentionally publishing false information.” The case stems from a front-page story that quoted medical sources on August 27 as saying that the king, who had to cancel his activities for five days, was ill with a virus. The court postponed the hearing until October 7.

Editor Driss Chahtan and journalists Mostafa Hiran and Rashid Mahameed of the independent weekly Al-Michaal have also been summoned to appear before a misdemeanor court in Rabat on October 1, to answer the same charges. Both newspapers are based in Casablanca.

Al-Michaal’s articles on the king’s health were published in the September 3-9 issue. Chahtan and his colleagues also underwent lengthy interrogation by the judicial police in Rabat. CPJ urged Moroccan authorities to end the investigation into Al-Jarida al-Oula’s case before Al-Michaal journalists came under interrogation for the same alleged crime.

Authorities have prosecuted Al-Jarida al-Oula before. On June 29, a court in Casablanca ordered the newspaper along with two other papers to pay a fine of 100,000 dirhams (US$12,484) and damages of 1 million dirhams ‎‎(US$125,213) each to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi after they published articles critical of the leader in 2008 and early 2009, CPJ research shows. Anouzla appealed the court decision.

In late July, CPJ sent a letter to King Mohammed VI expressing disappointment with the continued use of the courts to suppress freedom of expression and impose excessive fines on critical journalists in Morocco.