Morocco, Syria detain journalists; violations across region

New York, May 4, 2011The Committee to Protect Journalists called on Morocco today to release editor Rachid Nini and sought the release of journalist Dorothy Parvaz as well as other journalists in Syria. Press freedom violations continued throughout the region, with abuses in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Yemen.

Nini, executive editor of Al-Massae and owner of Al-Massae Media Group, was placed in administrative detention on Thursday, the independent Moroccan daily reported. On Sunday, prosecutor Abdullah al-Balghaithi ordered him transferred to prison after charging him with “denigrating judicial rulings.” He was initially arrested on suspicion of “compromising the security and safety of the homeland and citizens,” the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar reported. Nini is an outspoken critic of many government policies and has written about widespread corruption among government officials and called on numerous occasion, for the annulment of Morocco’s anti-terrorism law and for increased political freedom. On Tuesday, a Casablanca court of first instance refused to release Nini on bail. He is currently being held at Okacha Prison, Al-Massae said.

Parvaz, who works for the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera’s English-language service, arrived in Syria on Friday, but has not been heard from since, her fiancée, Todd Barker, told CPJ. Parvaz, who is an U.S., Canadian, and Iranian national is being held by one of Syria’s myriad security services, CPJ research shows. Today Damascus finally acknowledged that it is holding Parvaz, after five days of incommunicado detention. Syrian authorities have detained dozens of local and international journalists in an effort to restrict reporting on the popular uprising which began on March 15; most have been released, although a handful of local journalists and one foreign journalist (aside from Parvaz) remain in custody.

“We ask that Morocco release Rachid Nini immediately on these bogus charges,” said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Mohamed Abdel Dayem. “Syria must set free Dorothy Parvaz, and all the other journalists it has detained. A revolving door detention policy will not stop journalists from reporting on the country’s uprising.”

In Bahrain, Al-Wasat‘s senior management decided on May 2 that it would stop publishing the country’s premier daily after May 9, local reporters told CPJ. The newspaper has a long history of being targeted by the government for its reporting. The campaign against Al-Wasat reached its climax in April when the government suspended the newspaper, and accused it a few days later of “deliberate news fabrication and falsification.” On April 12, Al-Wasat founder Karim Fakhrawi died under suspicious circumstances while in government custody. The official cause of death, kidney failure, is belied by widely circulated photographs published online which show a body identified as Fakhrawi’s with extensive cuts and bruises. The government also announced that it will file criminal charges against three of the paper’s senior editors, who resigned after coming under immense pressure to do so. The government also arbitrarily deported two other senior staffers in April. The trial of the three editors is slated to begin on May 18 in Bahrain’s High Criminal Court.

On Friday, a Saudi Arabian royal decree amended the country’s already repressive media law, making it even more restrictive. The amendments, which modify five separate articles of the media law, are designed to punish the publication (in print or online) of any materials that contravene Sharia law, impinge on state interests or promote foreign interests, harm public order or national security, or enable criminal activity, local media reported. Individuals who are first time violators would face fines of 500,000 Saudi riyals (US$135,000) while a second offense would garner a one million riyal (US$270,000) fine and a potential publishing ban. Media groups, if found to have intentionally violated the new rules, could be temporarily suspended or permanently shuttered, the decree reads. Accidental or unintentional violations would be rectified through written retractions, corrections, and apologies.

These amendments come on the heels of an earlier set of regulations that severely hamper electronic media, which were passed on January 1. CPJ protested those regulations when they were first announced in a letter to the kingdom’s minister of culture and information. Unlike the January rules, Friday’s decree includes a provision that establishes an investigative and an appeals commission, composed of “specialists in law and media” to adjudicate offenses and issue rulings, local media reported. The appeals commission’s decisions are final and cannot be reviewed by any judicial body.  

In late April, Oman’s two main ISPs blocked domestic access to one of the most frequently visited sites in the country, the Internet-based forum and news website Al-Hara al-Omania, local and regional media reported. Prosecutors insist that the obstruction is not linked to the site’s news coverage, but is rather the result of the operators’ refusal to submit to the government data about some of its readers. In a statement, the site’s administration, alongside close to one hundred writer and intellectuals, stated that it was not in possession of the requested information and that the measures taken by the government were unwarranted. Previously, the site covered the short-lived demonstrations that gripped Oman in late February and early March, but have since then been quelled.

On Saturday, Ali Ghamdan, a Yemeni journalist who works at Al-Jazeera’s Qatar headquarters, was detained by an unidentified branch of the security services at the Sana’a airport as he was heading to Doha after a five-day vacation in Yemen, Al-Jazeera told CPJ. He was intensely questioned for five hours and had the contents of his luggage and computer meticulously inspected before being allowed to board a plane, CPJ research shows. Ghamdan’s brief but arbitrary detention is the latest episode of a long string of retaliatory acts by the Yemeni government against Al-Jazeera, which included death threats, physical assaults, and the closure of the broadcaster’s bureaus in the country. On Thursday, President Ali Abdullah Saleh told the Arabic-language branch of satellite television channel Russia Today that Al-Jazeera was conspiring against Yemen and using its broadcasts to topple his regime.