The government eased a crackdown against independent journalists launched after multiple suicide bombings in Casablanca in 2003. But Moroccan journalists – among the most outspoken in the region – were still saddled with onerous press laws and a meddling government.

In January, the day before Prime Minister Driss Jettou visited Washington, D.C., King Mohammed VI issued a general amnesty that resulted in the release of two jailed journalists and the dismissal of criminal charges against several others. Ali Lmrabet had spent nearly nine months in jail, and Mohammed al-Herd passed seven months before being released.

The journalists' arrests had triggered widespread condemnation of Morocco, a country that had burnished an image of political moderation and free expression. Lmrabet was serving a three-year sentence for "insulting the king," "undermining the monarchy," and "challenging the territorial integrity of the state" through articles and cartoons that tackled two of the most politically sensitive issues in Morocco – the monarchy and the country's sovereignty over the disputed territory of Western Sahara. Al-Herd was imprisoned for running an article in his weekly newspaper by a Moroccan Islamist that discussed the history of the Islamist movement in Morocco and its alleged relationship with the country's intelligence services. The cases of at least five other journalists who had been handed suspended jail sentences or had criminal convictions under appeal were also dismissed under the amnesty.

Morocco's independent and party newspapers remained among the most aggressive in the Arab world. Still, Moroccan journalists worked under the constant threat of prosecution. The country's 2002 Press Code criminalized criticizing the king, "defaming" the monarchy, and challenging Morocco's right to Western Sahara. Violators may be sentenced to up to five years in prison. The government may also revoke publication licenses, suspend newspapers, and confiscate editions deemed to threaten public order.

Moroccan journalists were also anxious about aspects of the country's antiterrorism law, adopted shortly after the 2003 Casablanca bombings and subsequently used to suspend three publications and to jail at least four journalists who wrote about extremist groups. The law broadly defines terrorist activity as anything "where the main objective is to disrupt public order." The "promulgation and dissemination of propaganda or advertisement in support of such acts" falls under its prohibitions.

Government officials continued to exert indirect pressure against independent publications. Journalists from the sister publications Le Journal Hebdomadaire (The Weekly Journal) and Assahifa al-Ousbouiya (also The Weekly Journal) complained that officials were pressuring advertisers to stop buying space in the magazines. In September, Moroccan Foreign Minister Muhammed Ben Aissa attempted to collect court-ordered damages from a dubious 2002 defamation ruling against the weeklies' editor, Ali Ammar, and their publications director, Aboubakr Jamai. The abrupt demand for payment – made even as the journalists' appeal was pending before the country's high court – followed an interview Le Journal had conducted with a critic of the royal family. The newspapers began paying the heavy damages, the equivalent of more than US$50,000.

At least two criminal lawsuits were brought against journalists working for tabloids, and at least two of their editors were imprisoned. In one case, Anas Tadili, editor of the weekly Akhbar al-Ousboue (News of the Week), was sentenced to a year in prison in late September after being convicted of defaming Economics Minister Fathallah Oualalou. The charges stemmed from an article Tadili published in April in which he alleged that Oualalou was a homosexual. Tadili was already in prison at the time of the sentence, serving a six-month term for a prior currency violation that was suddenly revived. According to his lawyer, several other defamation charges have been filed against Tadili.

Foreign journalists working in Morocco have faced government harassment in the past, and 2004 proved no different. In June, reporter Tor Dagfinn Dommersnes and photographer Fredrik Refvem of the Norwegian daily Stavanger Aftenbladet were expelled from the country. Although they were never given a specific reason, one of the agents who picked up the journalists from their hotel noted their reporting on Western Sahara.

2004 Documented Cases – Morocco

JUNE 16, 2004
Posted: June 18, 2004

Tor Dagfinn Dommersnes, Stavanger Aftenbladet
Fredrik Refvem, Stavanger Aftenbladet

Dommersnes and Refvem, a reporter and photographer, respectively, with the Norwegian daily Stavanger Aftenbladet, were expelled from Morocco.

Dommersnes told CPJ that four plainclothes Moroccan security officers woke Refvem and him up in their hotel rooms in Rabat early in the morning and told them they had to leave the country immediately. One of the agents told Dommersnes that he had broken the law and was persona non grata in Morocco. The agents never specified an offense, but Dommersnes said an agent mentioned that the journalists had been reporting on the disputed Western Sahara, controlled by Morocco.

Dommersnes said the officers took Refvem and him to the central security police station in Rabat. No one questioned them, and Moroccan authorities never searched or confiscated any of their belongings. Dommersnes was allowed to call his editor from the hotel to report what had happened, and he was also able to call the Norwegian ambassador in Morocco, who attempted to intervene on the journalists' behalf.

Dommersnes said two officers then escorted Refvem and him onto the train from Rabat to Casablanca. The officers processed the journalists through passport control and customs and then put them on an airplane to Paris. Both journalists arrived in Norway safely.

Agence France-Presse, citing Moroccan communication ministry officials, reported that the two journalists were expelled for meeting with Ali Salem Tamek, a Western Sahara activist who has campaigned for a referendum on self-rule to be held in the territory. Dommersnes said he never interviewed Tamek, but he did call another Western Saharan activist from the hotel the previous evening to set up an interview with him.

A government spokesman cited by The Associated Press, who spoke condition of anonymity, said, "The two journalists concerned got themselves accredited for a story of a touristic nature, when in fact this story had political characteristics."

Dommersnes said that he and Revfem were accredited and that they were not told that their accreditation had any particular limitations.


JUNE 1, 2004
Posted: July 23, 2004

Anas Tadili, Akhbar Al-Osboue

Tadili, editor of the tabloid weekly Akhbar Al-Osboue, was sentenced to six months in prison for defamation for publishing an article in which he alleged that a Moroccan government official was a homosexual.

According to local journalists in Morocco, the weekly never identified the minister by name. The article alleged that police arrested the minister while he was involved in a homosexual encounter.

Mohamed Ziyyan, Tadili's lawyer, told CPJ that within days of the publication of the article on April 9, police in the capital, Rabat, summoned Tadili, but he was not immediately charged with defamation.

Ziyyan told CPJ that more a decade ago, Tadili had been convicted of violating Morocco's currency exchange laws because of a bank account he had opened in France and said that when police detained the journalist on April 15, he was told to pay the previous court-ordered fine immediately: 3.5 million dirhams ($400,000 US). Tadili was ordered to spend 10 months in prison since he did not have the money.

Ziyyan said that on May 16, while he was imprisoned, Tadili was charged with defamation based on the article. He was sentenced to six months in prison on June 1. Ziyyan said that there are other criminal defamation cases pending against Tadili.

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