CPJ: End campaign against independent media in Morocco

New York, November 9, 2009—The Committee to Protect Journalists urges Moroccan King Mohammed VI to order the release of a jailed editor and to put an end to the use of the judiciary to silence independent media.

Editor Driss Chahtan of the independent weekly Al-Michaal is due to appear before a Rabat appeals court on Tuesday. In mid-October, Chahtan was sentenced by a minor court to a year in prison 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 the king’s health. 

Immediately after the court ruling, around two dozen policemen stormed the Casablanca offices of Al-Michaal and arrested Chahtan. Neither Hiran nor Mahameed have been detained. Defense attorneys who walked out of the hearing in protest 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 reiterate our call to King Mohammed VI to order the release of Driss Chahtan and to end the use of the administration and the courts to silence critical journalists and newspapers,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. “We are extremely concerned about the sharp rise in attacks on independent journalism since he ascended the throne 10 years ago.”

Al-Michaal’s articles on the king’s health were published in early September. The independent daily Al-Jarida al-Oula, which wrote about the same issue at the end of August, saw its editor, Ali Anouzla, and reporter Bochra Daou respectively sentenced by the same Rabat court on October 26 to a suspended year in prison and a fine of 10,000 dirhams (US$1,310) and suspended three-month imprisonment and a 5,000-dirham (US$655) fine for intentionally spreading false information about the king’s health.

“The judiciary is very weak and heavily influenced by the Ministry of Interior,” Taoufik Bouachrine, editor of the banned daily Akhbar al-Youm told CPJ. “The press freedom situation will keep deteriorating unless the king decides to turn this bleak page,”

Bouachrine and cartoonist Khalid Gueddar at the independent daily, which the Ministry of Interior arbitrarily closed down at the end of September, were sentenced on October 30 by a Casablanca minor court to a suspended three-year jail term and 3 million dirhams (US$400,000) in damages for lacking respect to a member of the royal family. Each of them was also fined 50,000 dirhams (US$6,550). The court also upheld the Interior Ministry decision to close down the newspaper and handed them an additional suspended year in jail and ordered each of them to pay a 100,000-dirham (US$13,100) fine.

In September, the Ministry of Interior closed down Akhbar al-Youm for publishing in its September 26-27 edition a cartoon showing the king’s cousin, Prince Moulay Ismail, during his wedding ceremony. The cartoon was interpreted as harboring “blatant disrespect to a member of the royal family” and an insult to the national flag. Under the Moroccan Press Law, the Ministry of Interior can ban a newspaper issue, but has no legal authority to shutter a newspaper. In October, Moroccan authorities banned three issues of the French daily Le Monde and an issue of the Spanish daily El Pais for publishing, as a solidarity gesture with Akhbar al-Youm, cartoons of the royal family.

“Press freedom violations crossed unprecedented borders,” said the local human rights group Adala (Justice) in a statement last week. “The repeated assaults on the media, such as the ban and closure of newspapers and destruction of confiscated issues of these newspapers have no legal ground. The Ministry of Interior disregards the press law and shamelessly encroaches on the prerogatives of the judiciary and the prime minister.”

CPJ wrote in July to King Mohammed VI to express its disappointment with the continued use of the courts to stifle independent journalism, and at the end of October to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to encourage her on the eve of her visit to Morocco to “impress upon the Moroccan authorities that a free press is a crucial component of any free society.”