Moroccan editor, source convicted in defamation case

New York, June 30–Moroccan journalist Hamid al-Mahdaoui was handed a four-month suspended prison sentence by a Casablanca court on Monday and ordered, along with a co-defendant named in the case, to pay a combined 100,000 Moroccan dirhams ($10,290) in damages for criminal defamation, according to the journalist’s website and other news outlets.

The court ordered al-Mahdaoui, editor of the independent news website Badil, and Rabea Al-Ablak, a source for the story in question, to pay the damages to Abdellatif el-Hammouchi, the head of the general directorate of national security who filed the complaint, according to news reports. It is not clear how the two are to split the damages. In addition, al-Mahdaoui was ordered to pay a fine of 6,000 dirhams to the Moroccan state, the reports said.

The sentence follows a civil defamation case last week in which a Moroccan court ordered the privately owned news website Goud to pay 500,000 dirhams in damages to the Moroccan king’s private secretary, Mounir El-Majidi.

“This is the second time in seven days that Morocco has ordered journalists to pay large sums to government officials for alleged defamation,” CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour said in Washington, D.C. “We see a pattern in which the government targets the resources of media outlets in order to render them silent and discourage critical journalism. We call on Moroccan authorities to put an end to this tactic.”

The charge against al-Mahdaoui was brought over reports in Badil about the death of Moroccan activist Karim Lachqar in May 2014. Badil and several other news outlets reported that Lachqar’s family had accused Moroccan police of torturing the activist, who died while in police custody, al-Mahdaoui told CPJ. In July 2014, the general directorate of national security filed a complaint of criminal defamation against al-Mahdaoui with the prosecutor’s office over a series of reports published in Badil in the weeks following Lashqar’s death.

Moroccan authorities denied responsibility for Lashqar’s death in a statement issued days after he died, according to news reports. No other media outlets were charged for reporting on his death and the claims of torture, according to Badil. al-Mahdaoui’s lawyers argued in court that Badil did not claim police killed Lashaqr, and had reported only on the conflicting accounts about his death, according to Badil.

Al-Ablak, the co-defendant in the case, was a witness to Lachqar’s arrest and spoke out after his death, according to reports. He is not a journalist, but was charged with “false reporting” and defamation, and went on trial alongside al-Mahdaoui, Badil said.

al-Mahdaoui learned of the sentence while attending a court session for a separate criminal defamation case in the northern city of Meknas, according to news reports. The charge in that case stems from a story published in Badil about reports of a car bombing in the city, al-Mahdaoui told CPJ. The government maintained that the story, which was widely reported at the time, was false, according to the journalist and news reports. The criminal defamation complaint was filed by the Wali (King-appointed governor) of the Meknas-Tafilalet region in April 2015, Badil reported. If convicted, al-Mahdaoui could face a 10-year ban from journalism, up to a year in prison, and a fine of up to 100,000 dirhams, according to Badil.

Al-Mahdaoui told CPJ that he faces at least two other court cases on charges related to his journalism. He will appeal the latest sentence against him, according to Badil.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This alert has been updated to correct the spelling of Hamid al-Mahdaoui’s name.]