March 15, 2010
His Majesty King Mohammed VI
C/o His Excellency Aziz Mekouar
Ambassador of the Kingdom of Morocco to the United States
1601 21st Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20009
Via facsimile: 202-265-0161
The Committee to Protect Journalists is disappointed by the government’s continued use of the courts to suppress freedom of expression, and it urges you to use your constitutional prerogatives to end the unjust imprisonment of our colleague Driss Chahtan. We also ask you to instruct authorities to end the practice of withholding accreditation from journalists working for critical foreign news outlets.
CPJ conducted a mission to Morocco in February that found a widening gap between your government’s stated commitment to the rule of law and its attacks on critical journalists over the last several years. Our delegation met with Communication Minister Khalid Naciri and President of the Advisory Council on Human Rights Ahmed Herzenni, but our requests to meet other, high-ranking officials and to visit Chahtan in prison went unfulfilled.
Despite his need for medical care and a plea for a royal pardon, Chahtan has been held since mid-October in harsh conditions in Oukacha Prison in Casablanca, his colleagues told CPJ. He has been harassed by guards, and his family has been forced to travel to the prison regularly to provide him with wholesome food. Chahtan, editor of the independent weekly Al-Michaal, is being punished for running articles about your health in September 2009. An appeals court in November upheld a 12-month prison term handed to him for “publishing false information.” Four other journalists from Al-Michaal and the independent daily Al-Jarida al-Oula were convicted but not imprisoned.
In addition, two defamation cases have been filed against Chahtan, one by a group close to some of your relatives and the other by a former employee of the intelligence services. The cases are now being examined by a Casablanca appeals court after trial courts found against Chahtan. CPJ, which has monitored hearings in these cases, has concluded that they amount to judicial harassment of a critical journalist.
CPJ has also tracked the withholding of accreditation from at least three journalists who work for international media. Our research shows that Mohammed al-Baqali and Anas ben Saleh of Al-Jazeera, and Mahmoud Maarouf of the London-based pan-Arab daily Al-Quds al-Arabi have been unable to renew their accreditation despite having filed the necessary paperwork months ago. We ask that you instruct relevant authorities to expedite this normally routine procedure.
Although officials have publicly said that Morocco offers greater press freedom than any country in the region, the government has sent a much different message to journalists by imposing some of the highest monetary penalties in the region against those who tackle sensitive public issues such as the record of Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi. A June 2009 Casablanca court decision ordering Al-Massae, Al-Jarida Al-Oula and Al-Ahdath Al-Maghrebia to pay fines of 100,000 dirhams (US$12,484) each and damages of one million dirhams (US$125,213) apiece to Qaddafi has had a chilling effect on independent journalists and has prompted widespread condemnation in Morocco and abroad.
This verdict, along with a September 2009 Supreme Court decision to uphold crippling damages against the independent weekly Le Journal Hebdomadaire in a defamation case, have also heightened concerns about the lack of judicial independence. In January, the Casablanca commercial appeals court declared Le Journal Hebdomadaire to be bankrupt and seized its assets. The rulings came shortly after Aboubakr Jamaï, co-founder and former editor of this weekly, returned from abroad and began writing critical pieces about the government. Among them was an opinion piece, published in the French daily Le Monde, in which Jamaï said the government was waging “war on independent journalism.”
Our research has found that the handling of the case was politically motivated. So, too, was the handling of other cases, including the government’s arbitrary closure in September 2009 of the independent daily Akhbar al-Youm and the confiscation of its assets after the paper published an editorial cartoon about a royal wedding.
As you know, Moroccan parliamentarian groups have launched what they call a national dialogue on media and society, an initiative that could be a positive step. But it must be accompanied by concrete reforms, notably a change in policy that ends the use of the judiciary to settle scores with critical journalists. (The journalist Ali Lmrabet remains in exile today, five years after he was targeted for politicized prosecution.) The release of Chahtan and the end of arbitrary decisions to withhold accreditation from critical journalists who work for foreign media are also urgently needed. And as we have urged in the past, we call on your government to decriminalize defamation, repeal more than 20 jail-term articles in the 2002 press law, and abide by international standards for freedom of expression online, in print, and on the air.
Thank you for your attention to these matters. We look forward to your reply.