Press freedom had mixed fortunes in 2004. The blanket pardon of all journalists in jail for press offences or whose trial had not yet started was offset by the imprisonment of two more journalists. Some topics remained off-limits and the authorities deported several reporters.

Prime minister Driss Jettou said the country was now on a fast-track to democracy when he made an official visit to the United States in January 2004. King Mohammed VI also pledged, on the fifth anniversary of coming to the throne, that he would lead the country through an "irreversible" transition to democracy and said he favoured the growth of "professional, free and credible media."

The state's broadcasting monopoly is expected to end in 2005 and the sector be opened to private ownership. A law to this effect was approved by parliament on 25 November 2004 after many months of delay. It changes the state radio and official TV stations RTM and 2M into companies open to private capital – a first for broadcasting in North Africa unless the government cheats on this test of democracy.

Non-governmental organisations and the Moroccan Press Association (SNPM) have criticised the make-up of the Supreme Broadcasting Authority (HACA) and the fact that any foreign media granted broadcasting licences must promise to "scrupulously respect the values of the monarchy and the kingdom's achievements in Islamic matters and territorial unity."

Security measures have increased with a new anti-terrorist law passed quickly and unanimously in the wake of the May 2003 bomb attacks in Casablanca and led to prosecution of many journalists that year. Two journalists were jailed for libel in 2004.

A survey by communications expert Said Mohamed, helped by the SNPM and Germany's Friedrich Ebert Foundation, showed 80% of journalists did not feel free to write about all topics and 56% did not like the press law. The most sensitive topic cited was politics, especially concerning government members. "How can public policy be discussed if journalists cannot criticise what public figures do?" the survey report asked.

Privately-owned papers have to deal with biased police and courts, cannot criticise the person or wealth of the king and face imprisonment for press offences and loss of revenue through withdrawal of government advertising in the case of papers such as Le journal hebdomadaire and Tel Quel, as well as pressure on printing firms.

The media is also harassed by Islamist movements. A letter-bomb was sent to the offices of the national daily Al-Ahdath Al-Maghribia on 5 January 2004 in the form of New Year greetings. Senior editor Mohammed el-Brini said it had clearly come from Islamist militants and was an "extension" of the Casablanca bombings. The paper, which backs the Socialist Party, has been repeatedly threatened in letters and e-mails because of its anti-Islamist stand.

The authorities closely monitored the activities and movements of journalists to block any independent reporting on the issue of Western Sahara. Two French freelance journalists, Catherine Graciet and Nadia Ferroukhi, and three journalists from the Norwegian daily Stavanger Aftenblad, Erik Hagen, Tor Dagfinn Dommersnes and Fredrik Refvem, were arrested by state security police and deported, even though they had journalist visas and permission to film.

Two journalists imprisoned

Despite an encouraging start to the year with the release of two jailed journalists and the pardoning of all journalists being prosecuted for press offences, imprisonment was again used by the authorities to stifle press freedom and two journalists were jailed for libel. One of them, Anas Tadili, was still being held at the end of the year.

The king pardoned journalists Ali Lmrabet and Mohammad el-Hourd on 7 January. Lmrabet, editor of Demain Magazine and Douman and local correspondent for Reporters Without Borders, had been given a four-year sentence on 21 May 2003 by a Rabat court for "insulting" the king, "undermining territorial unity" and "undermining the monarchy." This had been reduced on appeal on 17 June to three years. He was awarded the Reporters Without Borders – Fondation de France Prize on 10 December.

El-Hourd, editor of the weekly Asharq (in the northeastern city of Oujda), had been provisionally detained on 13 June 2003 and sentenced under the anti-terrorist law on 4 August to three years in prison for "inciting violence."

Anas Guennoun, editor of the weekly Al Ahali, was given a 10-month prison sentence for libelling a politician and imprisoned in Tangiers on 2 April 2004. He had written an article in 1999 about the private life of the governor of Tangiers. Guennoun was given a new sentence of eight months imprisonment on 21 April for libel. He was freed on bail on 4 August and went into hiding. A new libel case against him was heard on 9 November.

Anas Tadili, editor of the weekly Akhbar al-Ousbouaâ, was jailed after being summoned to a Rabat police station in the middle of the night on 15 April, officially for a civil matter dating back to 1994. In fact, his arrest was because of a 9 April article about homosexuality among Moroccan politicians, including the activities of a government minister at a northern seaside resort. The finance ministry reportedly pressed the justice minister to imprison the journalist.

Tadili was questioned by the Rabat royal prosecutor on 19 April as part an enquiry ordered by prime minister Jettou under a law allowing prosecution of those who damage the reputation of a government minister. He was given a six-month prison sentence on 1 June for libel, "insulting a government figure" and "putting out false news."

A dozen other complaints were filed against him. He was sentenced on 29 September to a year in prison and fined 10,000 dirhams (900 euros) for libelling a government minister. He was being held at the end of the year at Kenitra prison, north of Rabat.

In 2004...

  • 2 journalists were imprisoned
  • 1 physically attacked
  • 5 foreign journalists deported
  • 1 media outlet received a letter-bomb
  • and one was censored

Personal account

"Still much to be done"

Ahmed R. Benchemsi, 30, publishes an outspoken weekly paper, Tel Quel, founded in September 2001, which tackles sensitive topics such as the monarchy's wealth, drug trafficking in the Rif region and sex in Moroccan society.

What's it like working as a journalist in Morocco?

Press freedom has improved a lot since King Hassan II died and his son Mohammed VI took over. Working conditions are very good in Casablanca and Rabat. But access to news is very difficult in the provinces, where local media are more vulnerable to pressure due to being far from the capital and from international contacts that would defend them when attacked. French-language papers fare better than Arab-language ones because they're better known to press freedom organisations.

How can press freedom be improved?

For me, the big event of 2004 was the release of Ali Lmrabet, which set the tone for the new year. It was a great victory. But there's still much to be done, especially as long as the press law includes prison sentences for journalists and heavy fines. Some parts of the law have also become obsolete, such as the ban on media outlets having foreign shareholders. The most "official" daily, Le Matin, is now owned by a Saudi citizen.

The authorities' lack of transparency is still a problem, but officials are starting to be more open. That's good. But at the level of the royal palace, there's still a complete blackout.

Is there still censorship?

Directly, hardly any. No newspapers were seized in 2004. But there's still widespread self-censorship and many topics can't be mentioned.

January 2005


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