October 30, 2009
Hillary R. Clinton
Secretary of State
U.S. State Department
2201 C St. NW
Washington, DC 20520-0099
Via facsimile: +1 (202) 647-2283
Dear Secretary Clinton,
As you prepare for the Forum for the Future in Marrakesh next week, we’d like to bring to your attention a sharp spike in government repression in the host country, Morocco. The Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent, nonprofit organization that defends press freedom worldwide, has documented an aggressive crackdown on independent news outlets and journalists that has occurred over the last five months and has included judicial harassment, politicized prosecutions, obstruction, and censorship.
This month, a court in Rabat sentenced Driss Chahtan, managing editor of the independent weekly Al-Michaal, to a year in prison and reporters Mostafa Hiran and Rashid Mahameed to three months in prison for publishing “false information” about King Mohammed VI’s health during a period when the monarch had not been seen in public. Defense attorneys told CPJ that the trial did not meet basic fairness standards, notably in the court’s refusal to allow the defense to summon witnesses. We are concerned about his treatment in prison; colleagues have reported that Chahtan has been harassed by prison guards. This week, Chahtan was convicted again, this time for defamation in connection with stories claiming the relatives of the monarch had received favorable treatment from police. Chahtan and codefendant Mostafa Adarim, an attorney interviewed in one of the pieces, were ordered to pay 500,000 Moroccan dirhams (US$62,000) in damages.
Also this week, a Rabat court convicted editor Ali Anouzla and reporter Bochra Daou of the daily Al-Jarida al-Oula on charges of publishing “false information” about the king’s health. The two, who were sentenced to suspended terms, had also addressed questions about the king’s health during his absence from public view. CPJ has documented earlier, politically motivated charges against Anouzla and his paper. A Casablanca court sentenced Anouzla and Publishing Director Jamal Boudouma in March to suspended jail terms and fines of 200,000 dirhams (US$24,190) each for “defamation” and “insulting the judiciary.” A different court had fined Anouzla in connection with the same article three months earlier.
In June, a court in Casablanca imposed fines and damages on three independent dailies for “publicly harming” Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and “injuring his dignity.” The court ordered each of the three newspapers—Al-Massae, the country’s leading daily, Al-Jarida Al-Oula and Al-Ahdath Al-Magrebia—to pay a fine of 100,000 dirhams (US$12,484) and damages of one million dirhams (US$125,213) to Qaddafi. The papers had published opinion pieces that were critical of the Libyan leader.
Moroccan authorities delayed distribution of the July 15 issue of the French daily Le Monde and banned distribution of the July 9-15 edition of French weekly Le Courrier International, according to French and Moroccan news reports. 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 said the king had been hostile toward independent journalism. In 2006, Jamai had been forced into exile following a politically motivated and record-breaking defamation ruling. The banned issue of Le Courrier International had republished an article previously run by Le Journal Hebdomadaire. The article, which detailed the wealth of King Mohammed VI, was accompanied by an editorial cartoon.
Three issues of Le Monde were barred from distribution in the country last week apparently because they republished from Moroccan newspapers editorial cartoons concerning the king. One issue of El Pais was also banned last week for the same reason.
On August 1, authorities seized 100,000 copies of the country’s two leading newsweeklies—TelQuel and its Arabic-language sister publication, Nichane—after they published the results of a poll in which Moroccans were asked to assess their king. More than 90 percent of respondents expressed favorable opinions about the king. In a statement, Communications Minister Khalid Naciri called the survey an “attack” and said it was “not authorized.” The statement went on to say that the monarchy is not a permissible subject for polls and critical journalism. The Interior Ministry said the newspapers acted in violation of Article 38 of Morocco’s press code, which forbids offending the king.
In September, the Interior Ministry shut down the independent daily Akhbar al-Youm for alleged “blatant disrespect to a member of the royal family.” In its September 26-27 weekend edition, the paper had published an editorial cartoon about the wedding of a cousin of the king. The popular newspaper remains shuttered.
The Moroccan government has been hailed for reforms that were first undertaken a decade ago. But in the last five years, CPJ has documented a steady and alarming decline in freedom of expression.
The Forum for the Future, as you know, provides a platform for political, business, and social leaders from the Middle East and industrialized nations to discuss the promotion of freedom and democracy in the region. Yet we note with deep concern the deterioration of freedom of expression in Morocco itself. Morocco and the United States were co-hosts of the first Forum for the Future, which took place in Rabat in 2004. We hope that you will take advantage of that ongoing partnership to impress upon the Moroccan authorities that a free press is a crucial component of any free society.
Thank you for your attention to these important matters. We look forward to your reply.