New York, May 7, 2021 – Moroccan authorities must release journalist Mohamed Boutaam immediately, drop any charges against him, and let him work freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On May 4, judicial police in the southern city of Tiznit arrested Boutaam, director of the privately owned local news website Tizpress, after he responded to a summons for questioning, according to Boutaam’s lawyer Omar al-Douadi, who spoke to CPJ over the phone, and a report by Tizpress.
Later that day, state prosecutors accused Boutaam of “interfering in a government job without authorization,” a criminal offense punishable with up to five years in jail, and ordered that he remain in pretrial detention in Tizmit’s local prison until the conclusion of the trial, according to al-Douadi and news reports.
Al-Douadi told CPJ that he believes that case is retaliation for journalist’s work, saying that authorities did not specify which “government job” Boutaam was alleged to have interfered with. Boutaam was initially detained in response to a complaint filed by Hassan al-Wazany, a local real estate figure whom Boutaam accused of corruption in his reporting, according to al-Douadi and news reports.
At a hearing yesterday, authorities refused Boutaam’s request for temporary release, and said the court will reach a verdict on May 10, according to al-Douadi and Tizpress.
“By arresting journalist Mohamed Boutaam for allegedly ‘interfering’ in state work, Moroccan authorities are continuing their pattern of detaining members of the press for supposed offenses unrelated to any media or press laws,” said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Senior Researcher Justin Shilad. “Authorities must immediately and unconditionally release Boutaam and cease arresting journalists in retaliation for their reporting.”
In several articles published on Tizpress since 2014, Tizpress alleged that al-Wazany illegally seized properties and evicted elderly tenants from their homes. In 2016, Boutaam provided commentary on real estate corruption in Morocco for a documentary for Qatari broadcaster Al-Jazeera, in which he mentioned al-Wazany by name.
Since 2016, al-Wazany has filed multiple complaints to state prosecutors over those allegations, most recently on January 27, 2021, accusing Boutaam of defamation, spreading false information, and insulting him and the state prosecutor of the city of Agadir in his reporting, according to al-Douadi.
On January 30, the state prosecutor referred al-Wazany’s January 27 complaint to the judicial police, who summoned Boutaam for questioning on April 5 and then again on May 4, when he was arrested, al-Douadi told CPJ.
Al-Wazany has recorded several statements denying Boutaam’s reports, which have been shared on YouTube. CPJ was unable to locate contact information for al-Wazany.
CPJ emailed the Moroccan Ministry of Justice for comment, but did not receive any response.