Morocco silences the pens of its journalists

On the eve of Hillary Clinton’s departure to Morocco for the Forum of the Future on November 3, CPJ urged her to “impress upon the Moroccan authorities that a free press is a crucial component of any free society.” The forum is a gathering of political, business, and social leaders from the Middle East and industrialized nations to discuss the promotion of freedom and democracy in the region. Despite calls to action from CPJ and a number of watchdog groups, however, the topic of Morocco’s deteriorating press freedom remained absent from the forum’s agenda. 

Morocco, while often praised by the West for some of its progressive-minded policies under King Mohammed VI, upholds a prohibition against lèse majesté, or the crime of offending the dignity of a reigning sovereign, under which a number of journalists and bloggers have been prosecuted over the years. CPJ reported recently that Morocco’s Ministry of Interior had closed down the daily 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, which authorities claim features an incomplete green six-pointed star instead of the traditional five-pointed star superimposed onto the red background of the Moroccan flag, was interpreted by authorities as being “blatantly disrespectful to a member of the royal family,” and an insult to the national flag.

While the specific issue containing the cartoon was freely circulated over the weekend, the police arrived at the newspaper’s offices on a Sunday night, seized unsold copies and the next day’s issues and, in blatant disregard to legal procedure, ordered the newspaper’s offices to be shut down. While the Moroccan press law allows the Ministry of Interior to seize and prevent the distribution of a specific issue, only a legal judgment can justify the shuttering of a newspaper or the freezing of its bank accounts.

On October 30, editor Taoufik Bouachrine and cartoonist Khalid Gueddar were tried for the two offenses in two different trials. The first trial dealt with the offense of “defiling the national flag,” an act made recently explicitly punishable by law after supporters of the Polisario independence movement burned the Moroccan flag during demonstrations in the disputed Western Sahara. On the first charge, judge Nour El Din Kassim sentenced each to a year suspended jail sentence and a fine of 100,000 dirhams (US$13,143) and ordered the closure of the newspaper’s offices but not the newspaper. On the second charge, of “failing to show proper deference to the prince,” the journalists were each given a three-year suspended sentence and ordered to pay 3 million dirhams (US$394,260) in compensation to the prince. They were also fined 50,000 dirhams (US$6,571) each.

Authorities have shown little respect for the rule of law and subsequently banned three successive issues of the French daily Le Monde and an issue of the Spanish daily El Pais for publishing cartoons that were published in solidarity with Akhbar al-Youm.

This year has been a rough one for Moroccan publications; in August, weeklies Nichane and TelQuel, as well as French daily Le Monde were banned for publishing results of a poll indicating that 91 percent of Moroccans approve of the king. Nichane was also banned for two months in 2007 following its publication of popular Moroccan jokes, many of which were deemed to be in violation of the Moroccan press code for insulting Islam and the king. And just last week, two journalists from the Arabic-language weekly Al Massae received prison sentences for “publication of false information” connected to the dismantling of a drug trafficking network.

As for Akhbar al-Youm, as the newspaper was not explicitly banned, publishers attempted to print a new issue on November 1, but reported on its Twitter stream that the issue was also seized by authorities. Instead, the newspaper continues to publish online, and the site remains accessible through all Moroccan Internet Service Providers. In a piece titled “The Kingdom of Fear of the Press,” editors gave a scathing account of Morocco’s press crackdown, stating: “Gentlemen, the problems of Morocco are not in the pens of its journalists, but in the minds of some of the men in power who are not used to the rules of the game nor to the rules of democracy.”

Bouachrine, the newspaper’s editor, has vowed to re-launch the newspaper under a new name, Akhbar Al Youm al Maghribia, and has applied for the necessary licenses. He and the cartoonist Khalid Gueddar have also decided to appeal the courts’ decisions.

Jillian York is a writer and activist who focuses on issues of free speech online, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. She works at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society on the OpenNet Initiative and Herdict Web.