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Morocco: Press Freedoms Backsliding

Categories: Advocacy, Legal Threats

2009 has not been a good year for press freedom in Morocco, and over the past few months, actions against journalists seem to be escalating.  Although journalists are aware of the country's press law [1] – which forbids criticism of the royal family, Islam, and the Western Sahara – many choose to push past it, hoping for leniency.  They rarely find it.

Does the King Have the Flu?

In August, the royal palace announced that King Mohammed VI was ill with a “viral, benign disease.”  Amid an epidemic of H1N1 flu, several journalists questioned the palace's official announcement, suggesting that the monarch was ill with the flu virus or that he had “abused immunodepressants to treat asthma.”  In mid-September, authorities began calling in and arresting journalists who had written on the subject.  Editor Ali Anouzla and journalist Bochra Daou of Al Jarida Al Oula are expected to stand trial October 21 [2], while on October 15, the editors and journalists associated with Al-Michaal were handed a grave sentence [3]: Editor Driss Chahtan was sentenced to a year in prison, while journalists Mostafa Hiran and Rashid Mahameed were given three months in prison and a 5,000 dirham (US$655) fine each for “intentionally publishing false information” in a number of articles about King Mohamed VI’s health.

A number of organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists [4] (CPJ) and Solidarité Maroc [5], have condemned the decisions, and bloggers have reached out in solidarity with the journalists.

The Prince's Wedding Bells

Shortly after the wedding of Prince Moulay Ismail, Moroccan daily Akhbar Al Youm published a cartoon featuring the prince amongst several 6-pointed stars of David.  The Moroccan Interior Ministry condemned the cartoon [6], calling it “blatant disrespect to a member of the royal family” and stating that the use of the Jewish symbol “raises many questions on the insinuations of the people behind it and suggests flagrant anti-Semitic penchants.”  On September 29, police prevented [7] staffers of the paper from entering their offices, effectively hampering publication.  According to CPJ, the Interior Ministry has no right to shutter a paper, only to prevent the publication of an issue criticizing the royal family.  Still, editor Taoufik Bouachrine and cartoonist Kalid Kadar  face criminal defamation charges on October 23.

A number of prominent bloggers, including Larbi [8] and A Moroccan About the World Around Him [9] covered the story, the latter writing:

The Moroccan government has grown increasingly sensitive to the country’s independent media as they broached subjects considered verboten. Its judicial and political cannonade of independent journalists and artists, and the newspapers and magazines they work for belies its averment it advocates and protects freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Some observers pointed out that the government stands as the backstage instigator of the ad hominem bickering plaguing the independent media these days.

Digital Activists Defend Human Rights Activist

Part of the Free Chakib photo campaign

Part of the Free Chakib photo campaign

Human rights activist Chakib Khayari, a leader in the fight against drug trafficking in Morocco, was arrested in February 2009 for “gravely offending” Moroccan state institutions by criticizing lax drug interdiction policies [10]. Khayari was then sentenced (on June 24, 2009) to three years in prison.  Human Rights Watch condemned [11] the actions of the Moroccan government.

Khayari's sentence has sparked a campaign amongst the Moroccan digital activist community, with a Flickr photo campaign [12], Facebook group [13], and Twitter account [14] being used to spread awareness.

On October 15, Khayari appealed the case.  His trial resumes October 22.

And Another One Bites the Dust…

During the writing of this article, it was discovered that yet another Moroccan publication has come under fire.  Le Journal Hebdomadaire, a French-language weekly, has been slapped with a fine of 250,000 euros [15] by the Moroccan Supreme Court, to be paid to a Brussels-based research center. The European Center of Security and Strategic Intelligence (ESISC) brought about the case because an 2005 article entitled “The Polisario Front, credible partner for negotiations or aftermath of the Cold War and prevent a political solution to Sahara?”