Morocco steps up assault on online journalism

New York, December 18, 2009—The decision to jail a blogger and an Internet café owner is an escalation in Morocco’s already intense campaign against journalists and bloggers, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. CPJ called on Moroccan authorities to overturn both prison sentences on appeal.

Blogger Bashir Hazzam, 26, was sentenced to four months in prison for “spreading false information harmful to the kingdom’s image on human rights,” according to his lawyer, El Arbi Redouane. Hazzam was arrested and charged under the press law three days after posting on his political blog, Al-Bushra, a statement released by students at a local university who organized a protest on December 1 in Taghjijt, a town 125 miles (200 kilometers) south of Agadir, the Arab Network for Human Rights Information reported. The statement denounced the use of force by police and local authorities as well as the arbitrary arrests of some of the protesters who were demanding public transportation, housing, and funding for publications necessary for their course work.

According to news reports, a town elder ordered the arrest of three of the student protesters. Those arrests triggered an even larger protest that was dispersed violently by security forces. More arrests followed over the next few days, as the authorities sent reinforcements to Taghjijt and imposed a curfew on the town. The three students were each sentenced under the penal code to six months in prison on charges of “use of violence,” “disturbing public order,” and “insulting officials on duty,” Redouane told CPJ. 

Abdullah Boukhou, the Internet café owner, was sentenced to six months in prison on the same charges, but he was also found guilty of “possession of publications inciting hatred” under the press law after he was found in possession of a USB drive containing Hazzam’s blog post as well as statements from an advocacy group promoting Amazigh culture and language in Morocco. He received an additional six-month prison term for the possession charge. Redouane told CPJ that he has filed an appeal.

“The Moroccan judiciary’s verdicts against Bashir Hazzam and Abdullah Boukhou mark an escalation against online expression,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ program coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa. “It is reprehensible that the press law allows for the prosecution of anyone who is in possession of publicly available material. We call on the court to overturn these sentences on appeal, especially in light of the fact that the two men have already begun serving their terms.”

Several bloggers have been arrested in the past two years in Morocco. In September 2008, a Moroccan court convicted Mohamed Erraji, a contributor to HesPress, a Moroccan daily news Web site, for publishing an article critical of King Mohamed VI for rewarding people who praise him. His sentence was later overturned on the grounds of procedural irregularities. In February 2008, Hassan Barhoun was sentenced to six months in prison and a 5,000 Moroccan dirham fine (US $570) for allegedly circulating false news after accusing a local prosecutor of corruption. He was released after serving four months on a royal pardon.

In 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 fines and prison sentences on journalists and bloggers.