Background Briefing

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A series of prosecutions of independent weeklies, the most outspoken and critical sector of the Moroccan news media, show the continuing limits on press freedom in that country. The courts over the past year have convicted at least four weeklies, or their journalists, on criminal charges of libel, publishing “false news,” or “insulting” a foreign head of state, and are trying a fifth for “undermining” the institution of the monarchy. 

One weekly, Le Journal Hebdomadaire (“The Weekly Journal,” French-language, hereinafter Le Journal), may be forced to close if it is forced to pay the record 3.1 million dirham1 judgment against it that an appeals court confirmed on April 18. There is, furthermore, evidence that authorities orchestrated street demonstrations in February against Le Journal. These demonstrations added a newly menacing tone to government pressure on the independent press, as did the state television’s one-sided, uncritical coverage of those protests.

In the past fifteen years, Moroccan media have enjoyed growing freedom to cover sensitive issues, including human rights, social and economic problems, and corruption. Independent weeklies, and to a lesser extent certain dailies, have tested the limits of this new freedom both in their editorial tone and through investigative reporting. They are among the most outspoken media in the Middle East and North Africa, outside Israel.

Moroccan radio and television have meanwhile remained close to the official line, although officials promise that the licensing of new, privately owned stations in the coming months will diversify the broadcast media.

Despite these advances, the 1958 Press Code,2 as amended in 2002 under the present king, Mohamed VI, contains numerous provisions incompatible with the full exercise of freedom of expression, including several that provide prison terms for speech “offenses.” The frequent application of these provisions against journalists contradicts the image Moroccan authorities seek to project, of commitment to human rights and to freedom of expression in particular.

Moroccan judges, for their part, do not seem to weigh freedom of expression, both as a public good and as a right enshrined in Morocco’s constitution,3 when ruling on alleged infractions of the Press Code, and when setting damage awards in libel cases. Although the courts have sentenced no journalist to actual time in prison time under the Press Code during the past year, they have given at least five journalists suspended prison sentences and slapped outspoken magazines with arbitrarily high libel judgments that seem intended to financially squeeze them or force their closure. Among these cases: 

  • A court of appeal upheld the criminal conviction of journalists at Le Journal for libeling a Brussels-based research institute, imposing fines and damages of 3.1 million DH, an amount far greater than any awarded previously in a libel judgment.
  • Courts of appeal convicted journalists at TelQuel (“Such As,” French-language) in two libel cases, ordering them to pay 50,000 DH in fines and 500,000 in damages in the first case and 10,000 DH in fines and 800,000 DH in damages in the second. In the former case, TelQuel was fined far more than three other publications that had ran the same libelous item, even though TelQuel has a much lower circulation than two of them and had published a prompt retraction and apology for the libelous item. In neither case against TelQuel did the court spell out the basis for the size of the damage awards it awarded.
  • A court of first instance convicted journalists at al-Ayyam (“The Days,” Arabic-language) for printing photos of the royal family without authorization, based on an obscure and rarely used 1956 law, and for publishing “false information.” The court imposed fines and suspended prison sentences on a reporter and the publication’s director.
  • A court of first instance convicted al-Mash`al (“The Torch,” Arabic-language) on charges of insulting a foreign head of state because of a cartoon and article ridiculing Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. It handed down a fine of 100,000 DH and a one-year suspended sentence to the weekly’s editor. An appeals court is expected to rule on the case on May 9.
  • The director of al-Ousbou`iyya al-Jadida (“The New Weekly,” Arabic-language) is on trial, along with Islamist Nadia Yassine, on criminal charges of “undermining” the institution of the monarchy by publishing an interview with Yassine in which she characterized the monarchy as a political system ill-suited to Morocco.

[1] The Moroccan dirham, or DH, is worth US 11.5¢.

[2] Dahir no 1-02-207 of October 3, 2002, promulgating law no 77-00, modifying the Press Code of 1958.

[3] The 1996 constitution, in Article 9, guarantees all Moroccan citizens “freedom of opinion, of expression in all its forms…No limitation, except by law, shall be put to the exercise of such freedoms.”

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