Morocco’s journalists had a bad 2007 with plenty of nasty surprises, as the government continued to imprison journalists and seize newspapers, while insisting it was going to reform the press law. The king unsteadily juggled his desire to improve his image abroad with a temptation to curb the country’s independent media.
The monarchy displayed the limits of its long-vaunted ability to expand democracy, with the jailing of journalist Mostapha Hurmatallah for 56 days in Okacha (Casablanca) prison for writing an article about the army. Some 92,000 copies of the weeklies Nichane and Tel Quel were seized and destroyed at the printers by the interior ministry because they contained an editorial considered disrespectful to the king. Since Mohammed VI came to power in 1999, 34 media outlets have been censored and 20 journalists given prison sentences.
Abubakr Jamai, managing editor of one of the country’s biggest independent dailies, Journal hebdomadaire, was forced to resign in January 2007 to avoid the paper shutting down. He was convicted of supposed libel in April 2006, but could not raise the 3 million dirhams (€270,000) damages awarded against him and which could have been seized by the government from the paper’s own funds, which would have forced it to close down.
Journalists up against a fickle regime
The government always wins its prosecutions of journalists under the press law and a steady stream of cases was heard in 2007, as ever by obedient judges under strong regime pressure to curb dissidents. However, more and more journalists were inclined to dissent and avoid finding themselves in court. But government reactions were unpredictable and most journalists thought it best to censor themselves to avoid any problems.
The communications and justice ministries worked with journalists and editors unions to redraft the press law in 2007, but no final agreement was reached and no new version presented to parliament. The government is not keen on decriminalising press offences. Many articles of the law imprisoning journalists were removed from the draft reform but the chief ones used in recent years to convict journalists were kept in, so passage of such a reform would not have improved the plight of journalists at all.
Many topics are still banned in the Moroccan media, such as the monarchy, the army, Islam and Western Sahara, and a lot of freelance journalists were legally harassed and websites, such as YouTube and sites close to the pro-independence Western Sahara Polisario Front, were censored.
Arrests during the summer
Two journalists - Abderrahim Ariri, editor of the weekly Al Watan Al An, and journalist Mostapha Hurmatallah - were arrested at their homes in July and questioned for eight days, even as the press law reform negotiations continued, accused of “possessing criminally-acquired written material” after reporting on the story behind the country’s official state of alert. One of the articles reproduced a secret police note warning security services of the posting online of a terrorist group video “calling for a holy war against Morocco.” Hurmatallah was imprisoned through his trial and was given an eight-month sentence, while Ariri got a suspended sentence. The appeals court provisionally freed Hurmatallah after 56 days and reduced the sentences of each man by a month. The cases still have to go to the supreme court and have cast a long shadow over the paper’s staff.
Ahmed Reda Benchemsi, managing editor of the weeklies Nichane and Tel Quel, was summoned by national detectives in early August 2007 and questioned at length about an editorial criticising the king. The interior minister ordered seizure of all copies of the papers at the printers, who were also questioned. Benchemsi was charged with “disrespect to the king” under article 41 of the press law and faces up to five years in prison. The case has been adjourned several times and is now due to open in 2008.
Apart from the immediate effects on the staff of these papers, the case has left a bad taste in the mouths of the country’s journalists who had hitherto regarded their situation as one of the better in the Arab world.