Background Briefing

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>

Al-Ayyam convicted for writing about the harems of past monarchs

Al-Ayyam, convicted along with TelQuel for libeling Touria Jaïdi (see above), faced an even heavier judgment in another case emanating from a report in its issue of November 6, 2005. The lead article, entitled, “Secrets of the Palace Harem among Three Kings,” was based partly on an interview that reporter Maria Moukrim had conducted with François Cleret, a French personal physician of the late Mohamed V, who ruled Morocco from 1956 until 1961. It described the harems reportedly maintained by Mohamed V and by his son and successor, King Hassan II, but said the present king, Mohamed VI, had broken with this practice.

On November 22, the Maghreb Arabe Presse (MAP), the state news agency, announced that the state prosecutor was opening a criminal investigation into al-Ayyam’s report. The following day, in a strange turn of events, the MAP published a dispatch reporting that Doctor Cleret had denied ever granting an interview to al-Ayyam’s Moukrim, saying that the journalist had instead spoken to his wife. She, according to the MAP, disputed the accuracy of the remarks that al-Ayyam had attributed to her husband. (Dr. Cleret subsequently challenged the MAP effort to discredit the interview, confirming that Moukrim had interviewed him and had, in general, quoted him accurately.12)

On November 24, the judicial police in Casablanca summoned Moukrim and Noureddine Miftah, director of al-Ayyam, for questioning about its harem article. The prosecutor subsequently charged them under Article 42 of the Press Code with “disturbing the public order” by publishing, “in bad faith,” “false information.” The “false information” offense is punishable by a prison term of between one and twelve months and a fine of between 1,200 and 100,000 DH. The prosecutor also charged them with publishing photographs of the royal family without authorization, under an obscure 1956 law13 that had not been applied in recent years despite the fact that Moroccan papers publish hundreds of photos of the royal family each year without seeking permission. Al-Ayyam’s “offense” was apparently that it featured “private” pictures of the royal family never before shown by Moroccan media, including one of the wife of Mohamed V and another of King Hassan II wearing a bathing suit.

On February 13, 2006, the Casablanca Court of First Instance convicted Miftah and Moukrim on both counts and sentenced them to suspended prison terms of four months each and al-Ayyam to a fine of 100,000 DH (case 2006/153). The court ruling listed a number of “false” items contained in al-Ayyam’s report, such as the depiction of Hassan II as highly superstitious and the statement that, “the Alaouite tradition was that pregnancy preceded marriage.”

The Press Code requires that two conditions be satisfied in order to convict someone for publishing false information under Article 42: first, that the false item be published in “in bad faith” and, second, that its publication “disturbs the public order.”

The defense focused its strategy on attempting to show that Miftah and Moukrim did not act in bad faith. They said that they had presented information about the royal harem culled from Dr. Cleret and other sources, and had done so in good faith and without meaning to harm anyone. 

But when deciding on its strategy, the defense found itself “between a rock and a hard place,” Mohamed Karam, al-Ayyam’s lawyer, told Human Rights Watch on April 21. If the defendants had chosen a different strategy, such as attempting to prove the truthfulness of the contested information, they could have faced prosecution under Article 41 instead of Article 42, Karam said. Article 41 punishes speech – whether true or false – that is deemed to undermine the institution of the monarchy, the Islamic religion, or Morocco’s “territorial integrity.” Article 41 also provides heavier penalties than Article 42, including prison terms of three to five years, a fine of 10,000 to 100,000 DH and suspension of the publication for up to three months.

The court ruled that defendants Miftah and Moukrim acted in bad faith because they published these items knowing that they were false – something that they had never conceded, according to Karam. But the ruling’s most disturbing feature is its dangerously expansive notion of when speech disturbs the “public order”:

The aforementioned article contains untrue elements that impinge on the institution of the monarchy, where it states that “the role of the harem was limited to adorning and kissing the feet of King Mohamed V and to satisfy his sexual desires”; and that Hassan II, a rational man, was passionate about astrology and wore a talisman to ward off evil spirits. It impinges on the Islamic religion where it mentions that “the Alaouite tradition was that pregnancy preceded marriage,” considering that this piece of gossip relates to the king who is the legitimate Commander of the Faithful. The article thus impinges on the fundamental pillars of the state that find expression in the institution of the monarchy and the Islamic religion; these are things that are sacred to the nation and to which Moroccans are attached in an essential manner. The untrue assertions about them that were published in the aforementioned article provoked indignation among citizens, inflicting harm on their spiritual values and their sacred beliefs – values and beliefs that form part of the public order – if they are not its very embodiment.

Some observers noted that the prosecution of al-Ayyam was less about curbing political reporting than about halting a trend in the popular press toward gossipy feature-writing about the royal family. But the prosecution was a warning nonetheless to all publications of the legal risks associated with any form of critical reporting or commentary on the monarchy.

[12] See Catherine Graciet, “Un inextricable imbroglio,” Le Journal Hebdomadaire, December 3, 2005.

[13] Royal decree 204-56-1 of December 19, 1956, published in the Official Bulletin of January 11, 1957.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>> May 2006