Moroccan court orders news website to shut for three months, fines editor

New York, August 14, 2105–A Moroccan criminal court on Monday ordered the independent news website Badil to suspend operations for three months and handed a harsh fine to its editor-in-chief, according to news reports and the journalist who spoke to CPJ. Hamid al-Mahdaoui was convicted of criminal defamation.

“The judiciary should not be used to silence independent or critical media,” CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour said from Washington. “We call on Moroccan authorities to stop legally harassing Badil and to reverse this judgment on appeal.”

A criminal court in the city of Meknas ordered Badil to halt operations for three months and ordered al-Mahdaoui to pay 30,000 dirhams (US$3,000) on criminal defamation charges, according to news reports. Badil has continued to operate since the sentence. Al-Mahdaoui told CPJ that his lawyers have filed an appeal, but have not been given a date for a hearing.

The charge is in relation to a story published in Badil earlier this year about reports of a car bombing in the city, al-Mahdaoui told CPJ. The government said that the story, which was widely reported at the time, was false, according to the journalist and news reports. The complaint was filed in April by the king-appointed governor of the Meknas-Tafilalet region, Badil reported.

Badil has often published stories and columns that are critical of the government despite pressure from authorities, al-Mahdaoui told CPJ. Prior to founding Badil, al-Mahdaoui was a journalist at the independent news website Lakome, which was shut down in October 2013 after being targeted by the authorities several times for reporting on what the government said were taboo subjects.

“It is clear from the fact that Badil was the only outlet targeted regarding this story, which was carried by many other news outlets, that we are being targeted,” al-Mahdaoui said.

This is not the first time al-Mahdaoui has been convicted of defamation. In June, a Casablanca court handed him a four-month suspended prison sentence on defamation charges, after a complaint was filed by the general directorate of national security over reports in Badil about the May 2014 death in custody of Moroccan activist Karim Lachqar. Moroccan authorities issued a statement denying any responsibility, according to news reports.

In addition to the suspended jail time, al-Mahdaoui and a source for the story, Rabea al-Ablak were ordered to pay a combined fine of 100,000 Moroccan dirhams (US$10,290). Al-Mahdaoui appealed the conviction and sentence, he told CPJ. No court date has been set.

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