King Mohammed VI waves a Moroccan flag as he inaugurates a solar plant in Ouarzazate, central Morocco, on February 4, 2016. The king and national symbols like the flag are sensitive subjects for the media. (AP/Abdeljalil Bounhar)
King Mohammed VI waves a Moroccan flag as he inaugurates a solar plant in Ouarzazate, central Morocco, on February 4, 2016. The king and national symbols like the flag are sensitive subjects for the media. (AP/Abdeljalil Bounhar)

Mission Journal: Morocco’s new press law undermined by draft penal code

In the small, polished Moroccan capital of Rabat, pictures of King Mohamed VI, who took the throne in 1999, hang in many shops, offices, and hotels. In most of these, he is clean-shaven, smiling, and wearing a suit: a modern monarch. His image is part of the official narrative of the country as a place of moderation and progress.

However, the monarchy, along with territorial integrity and Islam, has traditionally been a “red line” for Moroccan journalists. The three taboos are a mirror image of the nation’s official motto: “Allah, al Malik, al Watan” (God, the king, the nation). Moroccan courts have punished journalists with jail terms, fines, and the suspension of publications for saying the wrong thing on these subjects, according to CPJ research.

A new press code drafted by the Ministry of Communications, which the government says makes great strides for freedom of the press, was adopted by Parliament this week. Minister of Communications Mustafa al-Khalfi has called the new law an “essential step in the path of reforms that our country is undertaking to establish a democratic path and establish a country of rules and laws.” However, without amendments to the draft penal code currently before parliament, press freedom is unlikely to improve.

There has been opposition to the new press law by journalists, as well as the press syndicate and the Moroccan Federation of Newspaper Publishers, both because of its content and because of the process by which it was created.

“When the Ministry of Communications drafted the new press code, it came as something completely different to what had been previously discussed and agreed with journalists and independent media professionals,” publisher and journalist Ahmed Najim told CPJ. Najim is the managing publisher of the online magazine Goud, which was ordered to pay more than US$50,000 in damages for republishing an article from another outlet accusing the king’s private secretary, Mounir el-Majidi, of corruption. (El-Majidi denied the allegations). Najim and other managers at Goud are currently appealing the sentence, which is emblematic of the pattern of civil and criminal defamation suits brought by government officials to punish reporting deemed critical of the monarchy or other public officials. Lawsuits like this can continue to be brought under either the new press law or the draft penal code.

As a standalone document, the new press code is a measured improvement upon the old one, which was adopted in 2002. Both codes prohibit, in slightly different terms, any publication containing an offense to the King, the royal family, Islam, or territorial integrity (Article 71). Unlike the old law, the new law does not provide prison terms for these offenses. Instead, courts can withdraw and seize publications, as well as suspend the activities of news organizations as punishment (Articles 103 and 105). The new law also provides for fines as punishment for incitement to violence and malicious publication of false news–offenses which were punishable by imprisonment under the old press code.

In statements to the press and in the Ministry of Communications’ annual report, titled “Efforts to Promote Press Freedom,” the government has argued that the removal of jail time for offenses under the press law is a major improvement, and that it solicited input on the law from journalists and representatives of the media community. However, the major flaw of the project is that jail time remains available for use against journalists under the existing penal code, as well as in the draft penal code, sent by the Council of Government to Parliament in June, where it is awaiting final approval.

The draft penal code retains a provision from the old one which carries a prison term of up to five years and a fine for “insulting the Islamic religion or the monarchic regime or inciting against the territorial integrity of the country.” It also retains prison as a possible punishment for insulting public officials, state institutions, or the country’s flag and symbols. The new draft makes prison a mandatory punishment for “justifying terrorist crimes,” attempting to influence the rulings of the judiciary, and undermining the authority of the judiciary. Legislators have given no indication that they will significantly revise the draft penal code before passing it into law.

In effect, the mixture of legal tools used to imprison, harass, censor, and fine journalists for their reporting are all still available.

The new press law doesn’t change anything for press freedom advocate Hicham Mansouri, who served a 10-month prison sentence on trumped up charges of adultery, and was released earlier this year. Mansouri, along with six other journalists and activists, faces a separate trial on charges of undermining state security based on work he did as coordinator of project teaching journalists how to use the storytelling tool StoryMaker. If convicted, he could face a prison sentence of up to five years under Article 206 of the existing penal code. That article is unreformed in the draft penal code before Parliament.

“The Minister of Communications tells us that journalists will no longer be jailed because of the press law…this is only because journalists will be pursued like ordinary criminals under the penal code,” journalist Ali Anouzla wrote on Facebook last month. Anouzla is under prosecution on charges dating back to 2013, for posting a link to a video attributed to al-Qaeda in a story. He was charged with “justifying terrorist crimes” under the penal code.

In February of this year, Anouzla, who is often critical of the monarchy, was summoned to court on charges of insulting the country’s territorial integrity, after a German paper quoted him as saying that the Western Sahara was “occupied,” in reference to the disputed territory claimed by Morocco as well as Sahrawis seeking self-determination. (The following month, Morocco expelled United Nations peacekeepers from the territory after U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made the same faux pas.)

Anouzla, who said the German paper had misquoted him, was cleared of the charges of insulting Morocco’s territorial integrity in May, but similar prosecutions–carrying the threat of jail time–could still be pursued against journalists under the draft penal code.

[Reporting from Rabat and Casablanca. The Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School contributed legal research to this report.]