Whereas Morocco formerly enjoyed more press freedom than many other Arab countries, in late 2000 the authorities struck a blow at the independent press by banning three major weeklies. The year 2001 simply confirmed the trend towards more pressure. In July 2001, in an interview granted to Al Sharq Al Awsat, an Arabic newspaper published in London, King Mohammed VI set the tone:
"Of course, I am for press freedom. But I would like that freedom to be responsible freedom [...] Journalists are not angels either. I personally appreciate the critical role that the press and Moroccan journalists play in public debate, but we need to be careful not to give in to the temptation of the imported model. The risk is seeing our own values alienated and individual freedoms challenged [...] These are the limits set by the law [...] It has to be applied to all. When the press talks of human rights it sometimes forgets to observe those rights".
The suspended weeklies were able to reappear under new titles at the beginning of the year, but they soon found that the authorities had them in their sights. The managing editors of Le Journal Hebdomadaire were sentenced to two and three months’ imprisonment and an exorbitant fine, and the managing editor of Demain Magazine to four months’ imprisonment. A fourth journalist was jailed in Western Sahara where he was ill treated, something that has not happened for years.
During the year no fewer than nine newspapers - including seven foreign publications - were censored for addressing topics such as the Western Sahara, corruption and especially the king in person. At the end of the year the diplomatic crisis between Morocco and Spain had repercussions on the Spanish press in the kingdom.
A journalist jailed
Police arrested Nourredine Darif, correspondent for the far-left Arabic weekly Al Amal Addimocrati, on 17 November 2001 when he was on his way to the Smara hospital in Western Sahara to inquire about the fate of several demonstrators after a riot that had broken out that morning. The journalist was allegedly ill-treated at the town’s police station. According to his family, he was left standing all night in handcuffs. Witnesses who saw him being taken to El Aioun prison the next morning noted that he had difficulty walking and showed signs of having been hit.
The journalist is detained in El Aioun civilian prison. "It is the Smara governor who is behind this arrest. The local authorities had their sights set on Darif for a long time" said a leader of Al Amal Addimocrati. On 1 January 2002 the journalist had still not stood trial.
A journalist arrested
Hannouda Taïbi, photographer for the daily Al Ittihad Al Ichtiraki, was arrested on 23 January 2001 by Casablanca police after taking photos in the area of the Bernoussi prefecture. Police confiscated his camera before beating him up and taking him to the police station. He was released the next morning.
Pressure and obstruction
On 1 March 2001 the Ain Chok court of first instance in Casablanca sentenced Aboubakr Jamai, managing editor of Le Journal Hebdomadaire, and Ali Amar, general manager, to two million dirhams (about 200,000 euros) in damages and a fine of 10,000 dirhams (about 1,000 euros). The two men were also sentenced to three and two months in jail, respectively. They had been charged by the foreign affairs minister, Mohamed Benaissa, for publishing a series of articles in three issues of Le Journal (N° 117, 118 and 119), banned on 2 December 2000, in which the minister was accused of misappropriating funds while he was ambassador in the United States. The two journalists appealed.
In March the 1,528th issue of the Spanish weekly Cambio 16, dated 19 March 2001, was banned by the Moroccan authorities, without any explanation. The weekly contained a section headed "The Sahara readying itself for war". The author of the article, Rocio Castrillo, who explained that "an army comprising 30,000 soldiers [...] is getting ready to confront the Moroccan invader", interviewed Brahim Ghali, member of the national secretariat of the Polisario Front. Brahim Ghali spoke of the "intransigent and colonialist intentions of the expansionist regime in Morocco".
The 34th issue of the Islamist weekly Rissalat Al Foutouwa dated 2 April 2001 was seized on 6 April by the authorities who gave no explanation. Mohamed Aghnaj, managing editor of the weekly, was in possession of an authorisation, dated February 1999, to publish his newspaper. According to him, "the authorities exert strong pressure on printing presses and distributors to prevent the weekly from being sold". The 35/36th issue, dated 11 May 2001, was also seized during the night of 22 May 2001 on the premises of the distribution company. Three printers told the editors of Rissalat Al Foutouwa that they stopped printing on orders from Hamidou Laânigri, head of the DST, the intelligence services.
The weekly consequently had to be printed and distributed through a network of activists with the association Al-Adl Wal Ihsane. However, these activists were arrested several times for distributing copies outside mosques. The weekly had already been seized several times in 2000 without any explanation by the authorities. Faced with this increasingly difficult situation, the editors of Rissalat Al Foutouwa had to close the publication. It has moreover been impossible since April 2001 to access their web site (www.fotowa.com) from Morocco. The weekly Al-Adl Wal Ihsane, the mouthpiece of the association with the same name, closed a year ago under pressure exerted by the authorities on printers and distributors.
The 17 May 2001 issue of the French weekly Courrier International was seized by the authorities without any explanation. It contained an article headed "In the greatest Berber nation in the world" (taken from the 12 May 2001 issue of the Moroccan weekly Demain Magazine) about the Berber issue in Morocco. The text was illustrated with a cartoon of King Mohammed VI which did not appear in the Moroccan magazine that was distributed normally.
The 5 July 2001 issue of the French daily Le Figaro was censored at the Al Amal printers in Casablanca, which belong to the Sochepresse publishing company. The Moroccan version of this newspaper is printed locally. The censored issue contained an article about the Berbers which was replaced by a page of advertisements. The format of the front page was also changed in order to delete the catcher for this article. Al Amal announced that this was "a technical mistake".
The 22 July edition of the Spanish daily El Pais was blocked at Sochepresse, the company that distributes it in Morocco. It contained a story headed "Mohammed VI, a king out of breath" which mentioned that "the monarchy is a financial burden for the country" and accused the king and the Moroccan government of having "no plans to democratise the country and lift it out of poverty" while, at the same time, "the rise of Islamist fundamentalism is being confirmed".
All 200 copies of the Thursday 6 September edition of the Spanish daily El Mundo were intercepted at Casablanca airport. The newspaper contained declarations by Josep Pique, Spanish foreign affairs minister, that "connivance between the Moroccan police and the [immigration] mafia is obvious". Despite a denial by Mohamed Achari, culture and communications minister, who claimed that the daily had been distributed, Reporters Without Borders was able to confirm that El Mundo was not distributed that day and was put on sale on the Monday only.
The 31 October 2001 issue of the French weekly Le Canard enchaîné was blocked at the distributor, Sochepresse, on the evening of the 31st. One of its articles, headed "His Majetski M6", commented on the latest book by Jean-Pierre Tuquoi on Morocco, "Le dernier roi" ("The last king", published by Grasset). In the book the journalist had written: "After two and a half years on the throne, his son hasn’t done much apart from stifling the press, giving in to Islamists on women’s rights, managing his immense fortune and playing sport...".
The Rabat court sentenced Ali Lmrabet, managing editor of the weekly Demain Magazine, on 21 November 2001 to four months in jail and a fine of 30,000 dirhams (about 3,000 euros). He was charged with "spreading false news which is a breach of the peace or likely to be so". The article in Demain Magazine, headed "The Skhirat Palace said to be on sale", published on 20 October, was described by the prosecutor as "false news and totally untrue allegations". According to the journalist, the real reasons for these charges were, among others, the publication (in the 27 October issue) of extracts from Jean-Pierre Tuquoi’s latest book on Morocco, "Le dernier roi", and his articles on Prince Moulay Hicham, the king’s cousin.
The journalist was sentenced by virtue of Article 42 of the Moroccan press code. On 1 December the Rabat prosecutor’s office lodged an appeal. On 8 and 21 December Demain Magazine was seized by police after appearing on news stands and then suspended. The ban was lifted by the Rabat court on 26 December only. On 6 July in a Rabat suburb an unmarked police car stopped alongside Ali Lmrabet’s car. The managing editor of Demain Magazine was with a French journalist. One of the men in the car took photos of the Moroccan journalist and called to him in Arabic: "We’ve got your photo. We’re going to deal with you now."
The day before, two senior officials from the DST, the intelligence police, had gone to the printing press Safaprint in Bouznika, 20 km from Rabat, where Demain Magazine is printed. They had ordered the printers to stop printing the weekly, before leaving with a few copies of the publication. At 9 p.m. they had returned to authorise printing of the weekly. According to Ali Lmrabet, "the DST feared that Demain Magazine would print new disclosures after the declarations of Ahmed Boukhari concerning the Ben Barka affair." Early in the afternoon that day two unidentified persons stole the French journalist’s camera.
While his car was stopped at a traffic light, one man attracted his attention while the other one opened his car door and took his camera. At the time of the theft two unmarked police cars and a motorbike were following the journalist who had already put his films in a safe keeping.
The Spanish weekly Hola! was absent from Moroccan news stands on 23 November. That week’s edition contained an article and photos of Lalla Hasna, King Mohammed VI’s sister, in the company of the Spanish toreador El Litri. The article reported the romance between these two personalities.