Security measures which increased after the 11 September attacks in the United States tightened further after Islamist bomb attacks in Casablanca in May 2003, leading to curbs on civil liberties and freedom of expression. More and more journalists were prosecuted on the pretext of fighting terrorism.
Less than a week after Islamic fundamentalist bomb attacks killed 45 people in Casablanca on 16 May 2003, parliament unanimously approved, without amendments, an anti-terrorist bill it had been discussing since the previous autumn and which had divided political parties, including the Islamist Justice and Development Party.
Hotly-debated definitions of terrorists, terrorism and "favouring terrorism" were left vague in the new law, which came into effect in June and provided a new weapon for hardliners in the interior ministry and secret police alongside the 2001 press law. It increased penalties for terrorist acts and allowed investigators to raid homes at night, tap phones and hold people longer for questioning. King Mohammed VI stressed his support for democracy and modernity (including a reform of family law) but said "the era of indulgence" had to end. The arrest of five journalists showed that the media was one of his targets.
The case of imprisoned editor Ali Lmrabet summed up the independent media’s problems in 2003. They included lack of an impartial legal system, taboo subjects (the person of the king and the Western Sahara issue), existence of prison terms for press offences, tougher action by the regime’s hardliners and boycotts of advertising. Harassment of printers and advertisers was the regime’s favourite device to silence the privately-owned media without having to resort to formal censorship.
Five journalists imprisoned
Ali Lmrabet, editor of the satirical weeklies Demain magazine and Douman and also local correspondent for Reporters Without Borders, was sent to Rabat’s Salé prison on 21 May 2003 after being sentenced to four years in jail and fined 20,000 dirhams (2,000 euros) for "insulting the person of the king," "undermining national unity" and "damaging the monarchy" in articles and cartoons. The magazines were shut down.
It was the first time a journalist had been immediately jailed after a court hearing. The offending material had including discussion of the king’s civil list budget (an official finance ministry document distributed to members of parliament for approval), a cartoon about "the history of slavery," a photo-montage featuring various politicians and an interview with an anti-royalist figure about self-determination for Western Sahara.
He had begun a hunger-strike on 6 May in protest against increasing government harassment of him after learning four days earlier that his printer had refused to handle his magazines any more. Soon after he was imprisoned, he was rushed, greatly weakened by not eating, to the Avicenne Hospital in Rabat on 26 May where he was treated under heavy police guard.
His jail sentence was cut to three years by an appeals court on 17 June, but the ban on the magazines and the fine were maintained. He stopped his hunger-strike on 23 June. Reporters Without Borders appealed in vain to the king to pardon him on the annual Fête du Trône on 29 July. He returned to prison on 11 August.
On 22 October, a court heard his appeal against another jail sentence of four months (plus a 30,000-dirham fine - 3 000 euros) handed down on 21 November 2001 under article 42 of the press law for "putting out false news undermining or likely to undermine public order" in a 20 October 2001 article in Demain magazine headed "The Skhirat Palace may be sold." Lmrabet said he was prosecuted because he had reprinted extracts from a book about Morocco by French journalist Jean-Pierre Tuquoi and had written articles about the king’s cousin, Prince Moulay Hicham.
Before the 22 October court hearing was adjourned until 7 January 2004, Lmrabet told his family and the media that two people had threatened to plant marijuana in his cell and accuse him of drug trafficking in prison if he continued to write in the foreign press. He began another hunger strike on 30 November. He was awarded the Reporters Without Borders / Fondation de France Prize on 10 December.
Mustapha Alaoui, editor of the weekly Al-Usbu, was arrested on 5 June after the magazine appeared on newsstands containing a front-page statement by a hitherto unknown group called Assaiqa, which claimed responsibility for three of the five bomb attacks in Casablanca on 16 May. The prosecutor’s office said printing the statement "blatantly violated" the anti-terrorist law. He was charged with "supporting a terrorist crime through a publicly-sold periodical" and on 11 July was given a one-year suspended prison sentence and the weekly was banned for three months. He was freed at once.
Mohammed el-Hourd (managing editor) and Abdelmajid ben Tahar (editor) of the weekly Asharq (published in the northeastern city of Oujda) and Mustapha Kechnini, editor of the weekly Al-Hayat Al-Maghribia (also in Oujda) were held for questioning on 13 June by order of the prosecutor-general and then sent to Salé prison, in Rabat. Kechnini and Ben Tahar were conditionally freed on 10 July.
They were each accused of printing the same Islamist statement but on 4 August, a Rabat court gave them different jail sentences under different laws for "inciting violence" - El-Hourd three years under the anti-terrorist law and Ben Tahar and Kechnini suspended one-year sentences under the press law. Their two papers were ordered closed for three months. El-Hourd began a hunger-strike on 30 November.
Kechnini was accused of printing in the 5 May edition of Al-Hayat Al-Maghribia a statement by an Islamist figure, Zakkaria Boughrara, praising "the activities of the Jihad movement in Morocco." It also appeared in Asharq a month later, on 5 June. Kechnini was also accused of reprinting in the same issue an interview with a radical Islamist preacher, Mohammed Fizazi, that had first appeared in the London-based pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat. Boughrara and Fizazi are regularly quoted in the Moroccan press without objection by the authorities.
Boughrara was also sentenced by the same court on 4 August to 10 years in jail under the anti-terrorist law for "inciting violence" by writing the statement that was published. The court rejected a defence request to separate his case from those of the journalists. He had also appeared in court in Oujda on 12 June on the same charges and his trial there on 30 June was less publicised than the trials in Rabat. The charges against him were dismissed by the Oujda court on 19 November when it accepted that a person could not be tried for the same offence by two different courts in two different places.
Four journalists arrested
Mustapha Kechnini (editor) and Abdelaziz Jallouli and Miloud Trigui (journalists) of the weekly Al-Hayat Al-Maghribia, were summoned by police in Oujda on 14 July 2003 in connection with an article in the paper on 12 May quoting Mohammed al-Abadi, a leading member of the Justice and Welfare organisation (the country’s main moderate Islamist group). Kechnini was also targeted by the authorities for calling Hassan II "the late king," instead of the usual "the late king, whom God preserve in his divine mercy," in the paper’s 20 May issue.
He was sentenced on 3 November to two years in prison under articles 34, 41, 67 and 68 of the press law and Jallouli and Trigui to 18 months each for "disrespect to the king," undermining the monarchy" and "incitement in print to subversive acts." They were also each fined 10,000 dirhams (1,000 euros). They appealed against the verdicts.
Houssine Majdoubi, local correspondent of the daily Al-Alam in Tetuan, presented himself to police on 23 August, a day after judicial police went to his home looking for him and found he was not there. He was taken overnight to Casablanca for questioning by national police officials, who told him that a drug smuggler under police investigation, Mourad Bouziane, had accused him of taking a 10,000-dirham (1,000 euros) bribe to print articles incriminating Bouziane and his gang.
Bouziane denied this when confronted with Majdoubi and confessed to an examining magistrate that the Tetuan judicial police and the secret police had forced him to incriminate the journalist. Majdoubi’s lawyer said his client had been arrested because of his investigation of drug trafficking, notably in an 8 August article in Al-Alam about the drug trade in northern Morocco. The lawyer, Mohamed Haji Lahbib, wondered how police could accuse a journalist of corruption based on the evidence of the very drug dealer whose activities he had exposed. The Tetuan examining magistrate freed Majdoubi on 25 August.
A journalist physically attacked
Rachid Mahamid, of the satirical weekly Douman, was beaten by several people as he was reporting on an Iraq solidarity rally at Rabat’s Mohammed V Theatre in Rabat on 26 January 2003 and tried to take photos of a brawl. The attackers snatched his camera and threw him out of the meeting. He had to take three weeks off work. Anas Tadili, managing editor of the weekly newspaper Ousbou al-Akhbar, who saw the incident, said secret police present did not intervene.
Harassment and obstruction
An anonymous mobile phone caller warned Maria Moukrim, of the weekly Al-Ayyam, as she was leaving her office in Casablanca on 13 March 2003, about an article she wrote on 2 March and said she risked having a car "accident" if she persisted. He then said he knew where she was in the street and shortly afterwards a man injured her hand with a heavy object. The caller rang her again and asked her if she had learned her lesson. In January, Moukrim had written about a secret detention centre in the Temara suburb of Rabat, known as "The Green Prison," a reference to the supposed colour of prisoners’ faces after being tortured there.
The Rabat correspondent of the pan-Arab satellite TV station Al-Jazeera, Iqbal Ilhami, was not allowed on 30 March to use the facilities of the state-run broadcasting station RTM to send her footage an anti-Iraq-war protest to her editors in Qatar. Communications minister Nabil Benabdallah confirmed this was deliberate and warned her to "cooperate more" with the Moroccan government over events in the country and demanded that she promise not to file stories that stirred up unrest in Morocco. She took maternity leave and was replaced by a new correspondent, who focused more on economic issues.
Two secret police agents stopped editor Ali Lmrabet from leaving the country on 17 April as he was about to take a flight to Paris, citing a police decision to ensure he appeared at his forthcoming appeal hearing against a four-month jail sentence handed down in November 2001 for "putting out false news."
Communications minister Benabdallah told a Paris press conference on 18 June that Lmrabet had "never respected even the most basic rules of journalism" and that his work was "more like disinformation, lies and insults." He was "systematically undermining" things and "shamelessly taking advantage of the greater freedoms" in Morocco "to damage and attack them and to provoke the government to react as it had and present that to world public opinion," he said. Lmrabet’s lawyer filed a suit against the minister in France on 16 September for slandering the journalist.
An interview in the Spanish daily La Razon on 7 September with Moroccan opposition activist Hicham Mandari, by reporter Pedro Canales, drew fierce and immediate reaction from the pro-government Moroccan press (Aujourd’hui le Maroc, Le Matin du Sahara et du Maghreb, Maroc-Hebdo). Aujourd’hui le Maroc accused Canales of defamation and "systematic disinformation." Canales fears he may not be allowed to return to Morocco.
The British weekly The Economist was not allowed on sale in Morocco on 13 September because, the magazine said, it contained a report on how King Mohammed VI and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak used Islamist movements and parties to their own advantage. The weekly eventually appeared on 17 September.