News website convicted of defamation in Morocco

New York, June 25, 2015–The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the excessive damages imposed on Monday by a Moroccan court on a news website convicted of defamation and call on authorities to reverse the conviction on appeal.

The Casablanca court convicted the privately owned news website Goud on civil defamation charges in connection with an article it republished on its website that accused the king’s private secretary, Mounir el-Majidi, of corruption and mismanagement of funds, according to news reports. El-Majidi denied the allegations. The court ordered Goud to pay 500,000 Moroccan dirhams ($51,450) in damages to el-Majidi. Goud‘s defense lawyer, Hassan Semlali, said the website would appeal the conviction, according to news reports.

“The severity of this sentence could have a chilling effect on media freedom in Morocco, and it should be overturned on appeal,” said Sherif Mansour, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. “We call on Moroccan authorities to stop prosecuting the media for coverage that is critical of the government or its interests.”

Goud said that it received a court summons in mid-February in connection with a summary of a news article from another outlet that Goud posted on its website on February 3. The summary, titled “El-Majidi is the danger that threatens Morocco,” was of a cover story originally published at the local Maghreb Today Magazine on January 30 which alleged that el-Majidi used his position with the king to take over public lands and advertisement contracts for his own financial gain, according to news reports. Maghreb Today Magazine has not been charged with defamation, according to Goud.

Goud said in a statement on Tuesday that the verdict was intended to silence independent media by enforcing fines substantial enough to force the outlets into bankruptcy. Moroccan authorities have used this tactic in the past, CPJ research shows. In June 2013, Moroccan authorities convicted Youssef Jajili, editor-in-chief of the investigative weekly Alaan Magazine, of criminal defamation and sentenced him to two years in prison, according to news reports. The jail term was later suspended.

In a separate case, Hamid el-Mehdaoui, who runs the independent news website Badil, is being tried on charges of criminal defamation brought by Morocco’s general directorate of national security, according to news reports and el-Mehdaoui, who spoke to CPJ. The journalist will be sentenced in a Casablanca court on June 29 and faces a 10-year ban and a fine of up to 100,000 Moroccan dirhams.

The charges stem from a story published on Badil about the death of Moroccan activist Karim Lachaqr, el-Mehdaoui told CPJ. Upon the activist’s death in May 2014, Lachaqr’s family accused police of torturing the activist to death after detaining him in the city of Al-Hoceima.

El-Mehdaoui is being tried in at least three other court cases and is the subject of multiple investigations related to his reporting. In April, he was interrogated by prosecutors and police on charges of defamation for a story published on Badil about reports of a car bombing in the northern city of Meknas. The government maintained that the story, which was widely reported at the time, was false, according to the journalist and news reports.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The text has been modified to reflect that a court ordered Goud to pay 500,000 Moroccan dirhams ($51,450) in damages, and that Hamid el-Mehdaoui, who runs the news website Badil, faces a fine of up to 100,000 Moroccan dirhams in an ongoing criminal defamation case.