Driss Chahtan holds his daughter while being taken to prison. (Abdelwahid Mahir)
Driss Chahtan holds his daughter while being taken to prison. (Abdelwahid Mahir)

In Morocco, editor imprisoned, court shutters paper

New York, October 16, 2009—The Committee to Protect Journalists strongly condemns the decision of a Rabat court Thursday to imprison the managing editor of Al-Michaal newspaper for one year

A Rabat misdemeanor court sentenced Driss Chahtan to a year in jail and Al-Michaal journalists Mostafa Hiran and Rashid Mahameed to three months in prison and a 5,000 dirham (US$655) fine each for “intentionally publishing false information” in a number of articles about King Mohammed VI’s health, local journalists told CPJ. The paper’s lawyers walked out of the hearing on October 8 to protest procedural violations and the court’s failure to abide by basic standards for a fair trial, they said.

Immediately after the court ruling, around two dozen policemen stormed the Casablanca-based offices of Al-Michaal and arrested Chahtan, journalists told CPJ. Lahbib Mohamed Haji, one of the newspaper’s lawyers told CPJ‎ that the arrest violated the country’s penal code, saying that the public prosecutor “had no legal basis to request the imprisonment after the ‎court issued its decision.” Haji said he has appealed the ruling. Neither Hiran nor Mahameed have been detained.

“These jail terms are part of a disturbing trend of repression of critical journalism in Morocco,” said CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney. “The government has failed to keep its repeated promise to reform restrictive press legislation and a politicized judiciary. We call on the appeals court to overturn these convictions. Meanwhile our colleague should be released on bail.”

Al-Michaal’s articles on the king’s health were published in early September. A few days before, staffers at the independent daily Al-Jarida al-Oula were interrogated by police for publishing on the same topic. Editor Ali Anouzla and journalist Bochra Daou have been ordered to appear at the Rabat misdemeanor court on October 21, journalists told CPJ.

Cases against independent newspapers have been rising over the past few months. On Wednesday, a Casablanca administrative court backed the September 29 arbitrary order by the Ministry of Interior to close the daily Akhbar al-Youm, after the newspaper published a cartoon about the wedding of Prince Moulay Ismail, the cousin of the king, in its September 26-27 weekend edition.

Right after Akhbar al-Youm published the cartoon, the Ministry of Interior issued a statement accusing the independent daily of a “blatant disrespect to a member of the royal family” during a “private wedding ceremony organized by the royal family.” Editor Taoufik Bouachrine and cartoonist Kalid Kadar have to appear before a Casablanca court to face criminal defamation charges on October 23, journalists told CPJ.

On September 29, police prevented staffers of Akhbar al-Youm from entering their offices in Casablanca, which stopped publication of the newspaper. “This is a shocking and absurd case of abuse of power,” human rights lawyer Abderrahim Jamai told CPJ. Under the Moroccan Press Law, the Ministry of Interior has no legal authority to shutter a newspaper. Article 77 goes only so far as to authorize the ministry to ban a single issue of a periodical deemed disrespectful to the royal family, lawyers told CPJ.

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.