King Mohammed VI on 15 November 2002 restated his determination to strengthen press freedom, safeguard plurality of information and to guarantee the modernisation of a sector, which he described as "one of the pillars of our plan for a modernised, democratic society" .
It was not the first time, since his accession to the throne in 1999, that the king had made such commitments. But since then there have been only slight improvements in press freedom.
And the year 2002 was no exception: It was characterised by censorship of newspapers and arrests or harassment of Moroccan and even foreign journalists.
Managing editors of French language weeklies Demain magazine and Le Journal hebdomadaire, banned in 2000 and reputed for their investigative journalism, were sentenced to prison terms. Elsewhere these two publications were regularly targeted by the authorities and by pro-government newspapers which on several occasions accused them of being in the pay of foreigners.
The adoption in May of a new press law provoked strong reactions from journalists. Although it contained a few improvements, it kept prison terms of three to five years for defamation of the king, princes and princesses.
Article 29 reaffirmed the right of the government to banned Moroccan or foreign newspapers "if the publications concerned tended to threaten Islam, the institution of the monarchy, territorial integrity or public order".
On the other hand, during the summer, the council of ministers adopted reforms in the audiovisual field that ended the state monopoly in radio and television. This reform meant that the state radio and two state-run television channels (RTM and 2M) as well as the official press agency MAP could be converted into national companies open to private investment.
One journalist released
Nourredine Darif, correspondent of the far left Arabic weekly Al Amal Addimocrati, was released on 25 January 2002. He had been arrested by police on 17 November 2001, when he went to Smara Hospital (Western Sahara) to find out what had happened to several demonstraters after rioting broke out in the morning. He was taken to the town police station where he was reportedly ill-treated. Friends said that he had been kept standing up and handcuffed the whole night.
Witnesses who saw him on 18 November during his transfer to El Aïoun prison, noticed that he had difficulty walking and that he showed signs of having been beaten. A spokesman at Al Amal Addimocrati said : "It was the Smara governor who was behind this arrest. Darif has been in the authorities’ sights for a long time". On 23 April 2002 the journalist was acquitted.
Four journalists physically attacked
Four Moroccan journalists were beaten on 20 February 2002 while on their way to the head offices of the Moroccan press agency MAP to debate the new press law. They were clubbed by police as they made their way through an unauthorised peaceful demonstration by unemployed graduates at the moment police moved in to break it up by clubbing the demonstrators.
Pressure and obstruction
Anas Mezzour, journalist with the Arabic weekly Al Ayyam based in Casablanca, travelled on 7 January 2002 to visit Islamist prisoners at Kénitra central prison. Accompanied by a lawyer and a representative of a local humanitarian organisation, he arrived at the prison in the morning.
When he went to leave in the afternoon the three of them were arrested by a group of men in plain clothes who separated Anas Mezzour from the others and took him to the governor’s office. Once there, a man whom the journalist was able to identify as a secret service agent held him by force and seized his tape-recorder.
Anas Mezzour was then detained in the office for three hours while the agents accused him of having illegally entered the prison. He was only allowed to leave after the prison governor made an appeal to the king’s prosecutor in Kénitra.
The French daily Libération dated 22 January was not delivered to Moroccan newspaper stands on 23 January, its usual sale date. It was held back by distributors Sochepresse. That issue carried an article headlined "Moulay Rachid. The very expensive holidays of the brother of the King of Morrocco". The writer drew attention to Moulay Rachid’s hotel bill in Acapulco: $10,200 dollars (11,547 euros) a day.
The article also specified that the king’s brother "was occupying the imperial suite of the luxurious Quinta Real Hotel along with 24 other rooms" and that he was accompanied by 16 people, including three beautiful models".
British freelance journalist Nicholas Pelham arrived at Tangiers Ibn Battuta airport on 22 January to prepare a report on emigration for the BBC but was refused the right to enter Morocco without explanation. He was held at the airport where he spent the night. At dawn he was put on a plane to Casablanca from where he had to take a flight to London via Madrid.
The Casablanca appeal court on 14 February sentenced Aboubakr Jamaï, managing editor of the Journal hebdomadaire and Ali Amar, managing director of the same publication to respectively three months and two months in jail both suspended.
They were also ordered to pay 500,000 dirhams (around 50,000 euros) damages and fined
10,000 dirhams (around 1,000 euros). The two had been charged with "libel" over a series of articles that appeared in the weekly newspaper Le Journal (banned at the end of 2000) that denounced the purchasing procedures in 1996 by then Moroccan ambassador to the US Mohammed Benaissa of a Washington residence for the Moroccan ambassador.
French weekly VSD, of 7 March, was not delivered to Moroccan newsstands, held back by the distributors Sochepresse. VSD management asked the authorities for an explanation but none was given. The issue in question carried an item headlined "The man who doesn’t want to be king" that referred to two highly polemical works on Morocco: Notre ami le roi (Our friend the king) by Gilles Perrault (1990) and Le dernier roi (The Last King) by Jean-Pierre Tuquoi (2001).
The authors of the article had drawn an unvarnished portrait of the king and a critical assessment of more than two years of his reign, quoting from a number of observers of Moroccan society.
Spanish journalist Ignacio Cembrero, of the daily El Pais, found himself being followed on 8 and 9 March after arriving in Rabat to write articles about Western Sahara.
A police superintendent on 14 March prevented photo-journalist, Zoulikha Assabdoune, of the Arabic daily Al Ittihad Al Ichtiraki, from covering a demonstration in Rabat. He also destroyed her camera and tore up her press card.
Plain clothes police officers on 6 May seized 8,000 copies of number 14 of the quarterly review Wijhat Nadhar from the Najah print works in Casablanca. Managing editor Abdellatif Hosni, described the seizure as "unjustified".
The issue carried a translation of an address given by Prince Moulay Hicham, brother of King Mohammed VI, at the French institute of international relations in Paris in May 2001. In his remarks, the prince, who was then living in the United States, said that the Moroccan monarchy should "reform itself".
On the same day a new press law was adopted by the parliament. It included some improvements such as reductions in prison terms and in maximum fines, simplified procedures to launch a new newspaper and the need to justify seizures of newspapers.
But it also kept prison terms in cases of defamation of the king, princes or princesses. It laid down sentences of from three to five years in jail against between five and 20 years under the previous law.
Article 29 of the new law restates the government’s right to banned Moroccan or foreign newspapers "if the publications in question tend to threaten Islam, the insitution of the monarchy, territorial integrity or public order".
Younès Moujahid, journalist on the daily Al Ittihad al Ichtiraki (organ of the Socialist Union of Popular Forces - USFP) and general secretary of the Moroccan national press union (SNPM) who criticised the new law, was sacked by Abderrahmane Youssoufi, managing editor of the newspaper and then prime minister.
Karim Sellmaoui, photographer on Journal hebdomadaire, was on 12 July refused access to the Mechouar esplanade opposite the Rabat royal palace, where a public celebration of the royal marriage was being held. A ministry official ordered Karim Sellmaoui out of the official vehicle which was to take him and the Paris Match reporter and a technical crew from Al-Jazeera, to the festivities. No explanation was given.
Nordine Miftah, managing editor of the daily Al Ayyam, was at Agadir on 16 August when a police superintendent ordered him by telephone to come immediately to Casablanca. He was interrogated for several hours over an interview on 11 July with an Islamist leader Abdallah el Chadli. Two days later the journalist who wrote the article, Anas Mezzour was summoned for the same reasons.
Ignacio Cembrero, of El Pais, was on 1st October once against tailed for several hours in Casablanca by four people he identified as members of the Moroccan secret service (DST). The
previous day the journalist had met former interior minister Driss Basri, at his home near Rabat. The journalist took it as a way of telling him that they had not approved of the meeting.
Ali Amar and Mouaad Rhandy, respectively managing editor and a journalist on Journal hebdomadaire, were on 23 October held for three hours by Moroccan police at the border post in Ceuta (Spanish enclave in the north of Morocco).
The two journalists were taken to the office of the judicial police where they were delivered a summons in the "Zahidi case" before being interrogated on the same case by the DST. On 19 October the two had published an interview with Moulay Zine Zahidi, former manager of Crédit immobilier et hôtelier (CIH) who was on the run.
The interview included revelations about the management of the CIH which had already been the subject of a parliametary inquiry and which implicated several political figures. "They went through our car with a fine tooth comb. They ripped out the seats and took our mobile phones, our documents and our cameras" said Ali Amar.
Ali Lmrabet, managing editor of Demain Magazine, was at yearend awaiting an appeal hearing. He had been sentenced at a first hearing on 21 November 2001 to four months and a fine of 30,000 dirhams (about 3,000 euros) by Rabat court. He was charged with "spreading false news threatening a breach of the peace or likely to do so".
An article in Demain Magazine headlined "The Skhirat Palace said to be up for sale" that appeared on 20 October 2001, was described by the Rabat prosecutor as "tissue of false news and mendacious allegations". For Ali Lmrabet, the real reasons for the charges were, among others, the publication (in the 27 October issue) of extracts from the latest book on Morocco by Jean-Pierre Tuquoi, Le dernier roi (The Last King), and his articles on the king’s cousin Moulay Hicham.
Throughout 2002, the Islamist weekly Rissalat Al Foutouwa was not available for sale at newsstands. Issue number 34 of Rissalat Al Foutouwa was seized by the authorities on 6 April 2001 without explanation. Mohamed Aghnaj, managing editor of the weekly, had a signed authorisation to publish the newspaper dated February 1999.
He said, "The authorities had put strong pressure on their printers and disributors to block its circulation" Issue number 35/36 had been seized overnight on 22 May 2001 from the offices of the distributor. The printers told the management of Rissalat Al Foutouwa that they had halted production on the order of DST boss Hamidou Laânigri. Faced with these growing difficulties the management of the newspaper had decided to shelve its publication.
The Journal hebdomadaire was held up for a half day at the printers at the beginnning of December because of an investigation into the religious basis of the Moroccan monarchy.