Freedom of the Press before the Moroccan Elections

Censorship of Taboo-Breakers

As the parliamentary elections on September 7 approach, the Moroccan justice system is muzzling independent journalists. Criticism of King Mohammed VI. is met with repression. David Siebert reports

Every day Boulevard Mohammed V. sees protests by hundreds of young people who are unemployed despite their university diploma. More than 30% of university graduates in Morocco are unable to find work (photo: David Siebert)
Protests against the labour market policy of the Moroccan government in Rabat. It's not only journalists who experience repression, but all active members of the civil society

​​Bad times for press freedom in Morocco: just last week Mustapha Hurmatallah, journalist from the Arabic daily "Al Watan Al An", was sentenced to eight months in prison.

He was accused of having published "classified documents" about the Moroccan security apparatus's "war against terror".

"This decision is politically motivated and is meant to intimidate journalists," criticized Jim Boumelha, President of the "International Journalists' Federation" (IFJ).

Weekly magazine confiscated

In early August the authorities had already confiscated 100,000 copies of an issue of the French-language weekly magazine "Tel Quel" and its Arabic sister edition "Nichane".

The journalist and publisher Achmed Benchemsi had dared to criticize a speech by the king regarding the upcoming parliamentary elections. Now he faces proceedings for "insulting the king".

In recent years Morocco was regarded as a country in which freedom of the press had made great strides. Independent critical weekly magazines such as "Le Journal Hebdo", "Nichane" and "Tel Quel" established themselves on the magazine market and made a name for themselves as taboo-breakers.

With features such as "Moroccans and Alcohol", "Homosexuality in Morocco" and "The King's Fortune", they regularly stir up controversy.

For many, the new, lively press environment in the kingdom is proof of the young King Mohammed VI's efforts toward democratization. In contrast to neighboring Algeria, private radio and television stations are permitted.

Report warns of steps backward

But despite the new liberal winds blowing in the world of the media, complaints from journalists' associations are growing. A current report by the American NGO "Committee to Protect Journalists" (CPJ) warns that press freedom in Morocco has taken "considerable steps backward" in the past five years.

"Unlike in Tunesia, for example, the authorities exert pressure indirectly, via the justice system", says Joel Campagna, author of the CPJ report. "A number of independent media were saddled with extremely high damage claims due to supposed slander.

"The Moroccan journalists we spoke to left no doubt about the fact that the decisions were meant to punish journalists who are critical of the regime."

As early as 2005 the justice system twice upheld damage claims against "Tel Quel" to a total of over 80,000 euros. According to testimony by Moroccan journalists and lawyers, these penalties were nine times as much as the fines customary in such cases.

In April 2006 the justice system imposed a record fine of 270,000 euros on Aboubakr Jamaï, publisher of the "Journal Hebdo" – the highest damage claim ever upheld against a journalist in Morocco.

The magazine had questioned the objectivity of a report by the "European Strategic Intelligence and Security Centre" (ESISC) about the West Saharan independence movement Polisario. The private European think tank responded by suing for damages.

In January 2007 Jamaï, who is regarded as a pioneer of the new critical journalism in Morocco, stepped down from his position as publisher to prevent the impending fine from ruining the magazine.

During the cartoon controversy the magazine's editorial office was repeatedly besieged by demonstrators who accused the journal of slandering Islam. "Reporters without Borders" suspects that the protests were stage-managed by the authorities.

Violation of "sacred values"

The Arabic magazine "Nichane" was also victimized by censorship early this year. On the basis of the article "How the Moroccans Laugh about Sex, Politics and Religion" the journalists Driss Ksikes and Sanaa Elaji were sentenced to three years probation and a 7,200 euro fine for violating the "sacred values" of the monarchy and Islam. "Nichane" received a two-month publication ban.

The fact that freedom of opinion in Morocco is still subject to strict boundaries is also shown by the new press law: admittedly, instead of the previous 26 offences it lists only four for which journalists can be punished by imprisonment.

However, whoever criticizes the royal family, "undermines the morale of the army" or questions Islam or the integrity of the nation state can still be punished with up to five years in prison. Within the past five years 13 journalists have been convicted of these offenses.

Punished with disbarment

But it is not only journalists who face problems when they broach taboo subjects: when a group of lawyers from the Tetouan province accused the local justice and police authorities of corruption and abuse of office last year, five of the lawyers were punished with disbarment.

Other active members of the civil society experience repression as well. Every day Boulevard Mohammed V. sees protests by hundreds of young people who are unemployed despite their university diploma. More than 30% of university graduates in Morocco are unable to find work.

"We have suffered a great deal of repression and violence at the hands of the police. There were injuries, broken bones, some people are still traumatized. On one day alone more than 30 demonstrators were injured", reports Samira, a 30-year-old unemployed linguist.

Prison terms for activists

Many members of the "Moroccan Human Rights Organization" (AMDH) were arrested after the annual May Day demonstrations. "Supposedly they chanted slogans criticizing the king. In Morocco that is regarded as a punishable offense", explains Abdelhamid Amine, vice president of the AMDH.

Ten of the human rights activists who are also active in other organizations such as ATTAC and the unions were sentenced to prison terms of up to three years, as well as hefty fines.

One of those arrested was Mohammed Bougrine, a 72-year-old human rights activist who spent a total of 15 years in prison back under the old king Hassan II.

Skepticism about the reform policies

As the parliamentary elections approach, the Makhzen – as the powerful clique comprising the royal family, the business world and the state apparatus is known – is reacting increasingly nervously to criticism by the opposition.

Abdelhamid Amine feels that recent events have confirmed his skepticism regarding the monarchy's reform policies: "It proves that we are still a long way from democracy. There was some progress in the area of human and civil rights. But it is not anchored in the constitution and can be revoked again at any time."

David Siebert

© David Siebert

Translated from the German by Isabel Cole

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