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Morocco: Prosecution of Independent Newsweeklies

Introduction

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.

International legal standards

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Morocco has ratified without entering any reservations, states in Article 19:

Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.

The ICCPR’s Article 19, paragraph 3 states that this right may be subject to restrictions, but only “such as are provided by law and are necessary: (a) for respect of the rights or reputations of others; (b) for the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public) or of public health or morals.”

The U.N. Human Rights Committee, in its General Comment interpreting this right, states:

when a State party imposes certain restrictions on the exercise of freedom of expression, these may not put in jeopardy the right itself. Paragraph 3 lays down conditions and it is only subject to these conditions that restrictions may be imposed: the restrictions must be "provided by law"; they may only be imposed for one of the purposes set out in subparagraphs (a) and (b) of paragraph 3; and they must be justified as being "necessary" for that State party for one of those purposes.4

While the 2002 amendments to the Press Code made some improvements to the existing law, it left many repressive aspects of that law in place. For example, it maintained criminal penalties for libel but reduced the length of prison sentences that could be imposed. It preserved imprisonment as a punishment for those who “insult” the king or who “undermine” the Islamic religion, the institution of the monarchy, or Morocco’s “territorial integrity” – a broad and vague concept that has been invoked to prosecute those who question Morocco’s claim to sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara.

Thus, the U.N. Human Rights Committee’s observations about Morocco in 1999 continue to be largely applicable to the plight of the press today. In evaluating Morocco’s fourth periodic report on its compliance with the ICCPR, the Committee stated:

The Committee continues to be concerned that the Moroccan Press Code includes provisions … which severely restrict freedom of expression by authorising seizure of publications and by imposing penalties for broadly defined offences (such as publishing inaccurate information or undermining the political or religious establishment)…. In addition, the Committee is particularly concerned that persons expressing political views opposing the government or calling for a republican form of government have been sentenced to imprisonment …. These laws and their application appear to exceed the limits permitted by article 19(3). [Morocco should] bring all its criminal and civil laws into full compliance with article 19 of the Covenant….5

Human Rights Watch affirms the right of libel victims to seek remedies through the courts. However, it views criminal defamation laws as incompatible with Article 19 of the Covenant and endorses their abolition. The London-based nongovernmental organization Article 19 developed a useful set of principles balancing the rights to freedom of expression and the protection of reputation, which state in part:

  • All criminal defamation laws should be abolished and replaced, where necessary, with appropriate civil defamation laws. Steps should be taken, in those States which still have criminal defamation laws in place, to progressively implement this Principle.
  • As a practical matter, in recognition of the fact that in many States criminal defamation laws are the primary means of addressing unwarranted attacks on reputation, immediate steps should be taken to ensure that any criminal defamation laws still in force conform fully to the following conditions:
  • no-one should be convicted for criminal defamation unless the party claiming to be defamed proves, beyond a reasonable doubt, the presence of all the elements of the offence, as set out below;
  • the offense of criminal defamation shall not be made out unless it has been proven that the impugned statements are false, that they were made with actual knowledge of the falsity, or recklessness as to whether or not they were false, and that they were made with a specific intention to cause harm to the party claiming to be defamed;
  • Public authorities, including police and public prosecutors, should take no part in the initiation or prosecution of criminal defamation cases, regardless of the status of the party claiming to have been defamed, even if he or she is a senior public official;
  • prison sentences, suspended prison sentences, suspension of the right to express oneself through any particular form of media, or to practice journalism or any other profession, excessive fines and other harsh criminal penalties should never be available as a sanction for breach of defamation laws, no matter how egregious or blatant the defamatory statement.6

Human Rights Watch takes no position on the merits of the private libel suits described in this report. However, the unexplained and exceptionally large damage awards Moroccan courts granted in the libel cases against Le Journal and TelQuel suggest that authorities exercised political influence on the courts to make the publications pay not only for the damage allegedly inflicted on the plaintiffs, but also for their criticisms and exposés of government policies and practices, and their investigations of corruption. Our concern with the chilling effect of libel prosecutions extends to cases filed by private parties and not just to those filed by public officials or on behalf of state institutions.

A record libel judgment against Le Journal

The most recent libel judgment of disturbing proportions is the one against Le Journal. Le Journal and its main competitor, TelQuel (see below), are glossy, aggressive Casablanca-based weeklies that appeal to an elite readership. 

Le Journal published in its December 3, 2005, issue a report on the Western Sahara in which it criticized and ridiculed a paper prepared by a Brussels-based think-tank, the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center (ESISC). The ESISC paper focuses on the Polisario, the independence movement that is Morocco’s adversary in the protracted conflict over the Western Sahara. The ESISC paper is entitled “The Polisario Front: Credible Partner for Negotiations or Remnant of the Cold War and Obstacle to a Political Solution in the Western Sahara?”  Le Journal charged that the paper was so one-sided in favor of the official Moroccan line that it gives the impression of having been ordered and paid for by the Moroccan government or its lobbyists.

Le Journal, which sells about 16,000 copies,never actually alleged that the ESISC received money or directives from Moroccan authorities or from intermediaries acting on their behalf. But its coverage, based on an analysis of the paper’s content, was full of innuendo. It used terms like “remote-controlled” and “directed” to describe the report, but took pains to put quotation marks around them. For example, the headline on the cover read, “Is the Polisario Finished? The Bad Arguments of a Report ‘Remote-controlled’ by Rabat.” 

ESISC president Claude Moniquet filed a libel suit against Le Journal in Morocco, saying the allegations of accepting Moroccan money to produce the paper had harmed the ESISC’s reputation. “We refuse to accept financ[ing] from any party concerned in our research,” he said at a press conference on December 20.7 Moniquet demanded 5 million DH in damages and the publication by Le Journal of a“correction” at its own expense in newspapers in Morocco, Europe and the United States. The state prosecutor also sought 5 million DH in damages for the plaintiff.

The libel trial of Le Journal director Aboubakr Jamaï and reporter Fahd Iraqi opened on January 16 before the Correctional Court of Rabat. The defendants asked the judge to summon as witnesses two scholars of the Western Sahara conflict who were based, respectively, in Spain and in France. These expert witnesses, the defense hoped, would endorse Le Journal’s assessment that the ESISC paper seemed suspiciously close to the Moroccan official line, showing thereby the “good faith” of Le Journal’sharsh judgment of that paper.

Truth is generally a defense in libel cases under Moroccan law. The Press Code’s Article 73 states that the party accused of libel “must prove the truth of the libelous facts” by providing the prosecutor’s office with “a copy of the documents; [and] the names, professions, and addresses of the witnesses through whom he intends to prove his case.”

However, the judge trying Le Journal, Mohamed Alaoui,8 rejected the magazine’s motion to summon the two expert witnesses. In his written judgment he based this refusal not on the relevance of the witnesses, but rather on an unorthodox and counter-intuitive reading of Article 73, by which the exculpatory evidence submitted by the defendant must be composed of both documents and oral witnesses, but not one or the other alone. This procedural ruling prompted Le Journal’s lawyers to withdraw from the trial in protest, arguing that Judge Alaoui had denied them the means to defend their clients.

On February 16, Judge Alaoui announced the conviction of Le Journal for defaming the plaintiff, fining Jamaï and Iraqi 50,000 DH each, the maximum allowable fine for libel under Article 47 of the Press Code. He also ordered Le Journal to pay Moniquet 3 million DH in damages, and to pay for publication of the judgment in three Moroccan newspapers.

While Moroccan law specifies the maximum fines that can be levied for libel, it leaves to the judge’s discretion the amount of damages to award to the libeled party, based on the judge’s assessment of the harm inflicted. Yet during the trial of Le Journal, the judge neither asked Moniquet to document the cost of the harm endured by the ESISC nor explained how he arrived at the figure of 3 million DH for damages. (Moniquet acknowledged in a phone conversation with Human Rights Watch on April 20, 2006 that the court never asked him to detail how the material and moral damage he suffered added up to the 5 million DH he was seeking. He mentioned to Human Rights Watch, however, on April 10, 2006, that in addition to impugning the institute’s reputation, Le Journal’sarticle had contributed to the decision by at least one client to postpone or cancel a commission to the ESISC for North-Africa related work.)

Both the defendants, on one side, and the plaintiff and the prosecutor on the other, appealed the verdict, with the defendants seeking acquittal and the opposing parties appealing the 3 million DH judgment as too low.

On appeal, the defense asked the Rabat Court of Appeals to nullify the lower court’s conviction because of alleged procedural errors, notably the refusal to summon the witnesses proposed by the defense. The appeals court judge refused this motion, but, at his own initiative, subpoenaed the two witnesses proposed by the defense during the lower-court trial.

Only one of the two, Spanish scholar Bernabé López-García, attended. He took the stand at the April 4 session of the trial – by which date the defense had already withdrawn from the trial to protest the court’s refusal to nullify the lower-court verdict. The judge asked Lopéz-García only one substantive question: Did the government of Morocco order or pay for the paper produced by the ESISC? López-García replied that he did not know. The judge avoided the line of questioning sought by the defense, which was to probe whether experts on the Western Sahara conflict considered Le Journal’s critique of the ESISC report to be reasonable. On April 18, the Appeals Court affirmed the lower-court verdict and sentence.

According to defendant and Le Journal director Aboubakr Jamaï, the record judgment against Le Journal was motivated not by its alleged defamation of the ESISC but rather by the article’s underlying argument, which was that Moroccan authorities were mismanaging the Western Sahara issue by trying to discredit the Polisario and cast it as an unworthy partner for negotiation. Authorities, who are intolerant of criticism of their Western Sahara policy, found in the ESISC’s libel complaint a convenient instrument for punishing Le Journal, Jamaï told Human Rights Watch on April 20.

Disturbing events that coincided with the lower-court trial of Le Journal reinforced suspicion that Moroccan authorities were seeking to pressure or punish the weekly. On February 14 – two days before the lower-court verdict – demonstrators rallied outside Le Journal’s downtown Casablanca headquarters, denouncing it on the grounds that it had reprinted the controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad first published in a Danish newspaper. A similar rally, also to protest Le Journal’s supposed publication of the cartoons, took place the day before in front of the parliament building in Rabat Moroccan television ran entirely one-sided coverage of the demonstrations, interviewing the angry protestors without airing conversations with any staff member of Le Journal or pointing out that in fact the weekly had never reprinted the cartoons.

The demonstrations were anything but spontaneous. As Le Journal and others have credibly documented, Moroccan officials recruited and provided transportation to men, women, and children from poor neighborhoods who had been told that the target of the protests were “infidels” who had reprinted the cartoons. Although witnesses said that local officials and vehicles were present at and contributed to the protests, further investigation is needed to identify which public officials ordered and supervised these activities. Minister of Communication Nabil Benabdellah denied that Moroccan authorities had any hand in the demonstrations. Other than such denials, Moroccan officials have said nothing publicly about them.

Le Journal’s staff understandably said they felt physically endangered by the anti-Journal demonstrations and hostile coverage on state television, at a time when scores of persons had died across the Muslim world in angry cartoon-related protests.

Appeal courts confirm two costly libel judgments against TelQuel

Moroccan courts have imposed heavy libel damages twice in recent months on TelQuel. On February 7, the Casablanca Appeals Court ordered the magazine to pay 500,000 DH to Touria Jaïdi (also known by Bouabid, her married name), president of the Moroccan Association to Help Children in Difficulty (l’Association Marocaine d’aide aux enfants en situation précaire), for reporting erroneously in its issue of May 7, 2005, that she was under police investigation for misappropriating funds. The Appeals Court thereby reduced the 900,000 DH in damages awarded by the Casablanca Court of First Instance on October 24, 2005. The appeals court confirmed, however, the fines of 5,000 DH apiece imposed on TelQuel publisher Ahmed Benchemsi and journalist Karim Boukhari.

In separate trials, courts convicted three other publications – al-Ahdath al-Maghribiyya (“Moroccan Events,” an Arabic-language daily), al-Ayyam, and al-Ousbou`iyya al-Jadida– that had carried, in various forms, the same erroneous information about Jaïdi. But both at first instance and on appeal, the courts imposed far higher damage awards on TelQuel than on the other papers, even though at least two of them – al-Ahdath al-Maghribiyya  and al-Ayyam – have much higher circulations than TelQuel, and even though TelQuel had published an apology and full retraction in the issue following the one containing the erroneous information.9 It appears that the discrepancy can be explained by a determination to punish or pressure TelQuel, whosecriticalreporting on government affairs attracts an elite readership.

On April 14, an appeals court confirmed the lower-court conviction of al-Ousbou`iyya al-Jadida, maintaining the 20,000 DH in fines and 30,000 DH in damages to Jaïdi. On April 18, appeals courts confirmed the libel convictions of al-Ahdath al-Maghribiyya and al-Ayyam. For the former (cases 71/67/05 and 72/67/05), the court confirmed two 20,000 DH fines, one against al-Ahdath director Mohamed Brini and one against journalist Abdelmjid Hachadi, and raised the damage award due Jaïdi from 100,000 to 250,000 DH while lowering the damage award due her association from 100,000 to 60,000 DH. Thus, the appeals court left al-Ahdath to pay fines and damages totaling 350,000 DH, up from the 240,000 DH imposed by the lower court. The appeals court trying al-Ayyam (case 93/67/05) maintained the 12,000 DH fine against publication director Noureddine Miftah and increased the damages from 120,000 DH to 250,000 DH, for a total of 262,000 DH.  

Thus, the appeals judgments narrowed but did not close the gap between the hefty damages imposed on TelQuel and those imposed on the other publications. Like the lower court, the appeals court that tried TelQuel did not document the basis for the damages it decided to award Jaïdi.  

In the second recent libel conviction of TelQuel, the Casablanca Court of First Instance on August 15, 2005 awarded damages of one million DH to plaintiff Halima Assali and imposed on TelQuel director Ahmed Benchemsi and editor Karim Boukhari suspended two-month prison sentences and fines of 25,000 DH apiece. Assali is a pro-government member of parliament whom Boukhari had ridiculed in a gossipy column published in a July 2005 issue.10 The column did not name her but its subject was evident to readers. It described her as someone from the Middle Atlas countryside who was elected to parliament despite a lack of credentials for the position, and who rarely attended parliamentary sessions.  The column also called her a “former cheikha, a woman of song and of pleasure(s),” thereby making innuendo, in the eyes of some observers, about her moral character.

Both Assali and TelQuel appealed the lower-court ruling, with the deputy seeking higher damages. Before the Casablanca Court of Appeals, Assali stated that she had never been a cheikha and that the article had hurt her, a married mother of two, and caused her to avoid social functions out of embarrassment.11 The defendants claimed that neither the label “cheikha” nor any of the other phrases in the column were libelous and that the column fell well within the bounds of a familiar style of column-writing that was “caustic but not insulting.”

On December 29, the Appeals Court upheld the conviction and the suspended prison sentences for Benchemsi and Boukhari, but reduced the damages owed to Assali from one million to 800,000 DH, a sum that still made it one of the largest libel judgments ever awarded in Morocco. The court did not explain how it assessed the value of the harm sustained by Assali. An appeal of the conviction by the defendants to the Court of Cassation is currently pending.

In recent weeks, Assali stated in writing that she would not seek payment by TelQuel of the award due her. 

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.

Al-Ousbou`iyya director charged for interview questioning monarchy

The prosecution of Abdelaziz Koukas, director of al-Ousbou`iyya al-Jadida, andof Islamist Nadia Yassine exemplifies the legal dangers of posing even general questions about the monarchy. Both Koukas and Yassine, who is spokesperson for Justice and Charity, a Moroccan Islamist movement, face prison if convicted for an interview with Yassine that al-Ousbou`iyya al-Jadida published on June 6, 2005. In that interview, Yassine called the monarchy a form of government that was ill-suited to the country. The state prosecutor subsequently charged her and Koukas with “undermining” the institution of the monarchy, under Article 41 of the Press Code.

The court has postponed the trial of Yassine and Koukas several times, most recently on March 14, 2006.  It has not announced a new date, but the charges hang over both defendants. The prosecutor’s office used the charges as a pretext to prevent Yassine from traveling abroad on February 20. They allowed her to depart two days later – too late, she said, to attend the event that was the motive for her trip.

Fine and suspended prison term for “insulting” foreign head of state

A satirical article and cartoon about Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika earned al-Mash`al a 100,000 DH fine and a one-year suspended sentence for the publication’s director, Driss Chahtane.

On October 20, 2005, a court of first instance ruled that al-Mash`al’s May 2005 column about Bouteflika’s adventures as a young man while living in Oujda, Morocco, and the accompanying cartoon – which depicted the Algerian president in boxer shorts with his pants around his ankles – constituted an offense to his dignity and convicted the weekly under the Press Code’s Article 52. That article states, “An insult that is perpetrated publicly against the person or the dignity of heads of state, prime ministers, foreign affairs ministers of foreign countries, shall be punished by imprisonment from one month to one year, and a fine of 10,000 DH to 100,000 DH, or one of these two punishments.”

Al-Mash`al’s lawyers charged that the trial was unfair because the court had refused demands by the defense to examine the complaint against the article supposedly filed by President Bouteflika or on his behalf. According to Article 71 of the Press Code, a case under Article 52 is initiated “upon the request of the offended party, or on his behalf and in response to his request, by the prime minister or foreign minister.” The case file contained no such complaint from President Bouteflika or other Algerian officials, Mohamed Tarek Sba’i, a lawyer for al-Mash`al, told Human Rights Watch on April 25, 2006.

Al-Mash`al appealed the conviction and the Appeals Court is expected to issue its ruling on May 9.

Will licensing of private broadcasters diversify news and views?

Despite the pressure on independent newsweeklies, a decision by King Mohamed VI to ease licensing of privately owned radio and television stations has raised hope for more diversity in Morocco’s broadcast media. The state’s High Audiovisual Communication Authority (HACA) is reviewing applications for broadcasting licenses. HACA Chairman Ahmed Ghazali predicted in an interview with Reuters on March 8 that the HACA soon would license some twenty-four radio stations and five television stations. 

Although the move will surely increase the number of privately owned stations in Morocco, the more important test is whether the HACA will steer clear of political criteria when ruling on license applications, and whether the government will allow newly licensed stations to present independent reporting and commentary on sensitive issues. Such a development would be a huge step forward for press freedom in Morocco, at a time when outspoken print publications face politically motivated prosecutions and court judgments, and state television provides a dull diet of officially approved news coverage and commentary.

Recommendations

Moroccan authorities should allow independent publications to exercise the right to freedom of expression to the full extent guaranteed by international standards, without fear of judicial or other forms of harassment. To that end:

  • Authorities should introduce legislation to amend all provisions of the Press Code of 2002 that violate internationally recognized standards of freedom of expression. Libel should be treated as a strictly civil matter; criminal libel statutes should be abolished. Authorities should also abolish articles that criminalize statements deemed insulting to the King, a royal prince, or princess (Article 41); insults against foreign heads of state, prime ministers, foreign ministers (Article 52); and insults against foreign ambassadors and consuls in Morocco (Article 53).
  • Authorities should introduce legislation to eliminate or drastically limit the scope of other articles that criminalize statements that “undermine” the Islamic religion, the institution of the monarchy, or Morocco’s territorial integrity (Article 41); and that criminalize publication of “false information” in “bad faith” that “disturbs the public order” (Article 42);
  • As a matter of priority, all of the above articles should be amended to eliminate prison terms as an option for punishment.
  • Until such time as the Press Code is brought into line with internationally recognized standards of freedom of expression, authorities should refrain from prosecuting journalists under provisions that violate those standards, or that impose imprisonment as a penalty for speech offenses.
  • Authorities should provide guidance to judges to ensure that when assessing damage awards in libel cases, they take into account the potential chilling effect of the award on freedom of expression, among other things; that the award bears a proportionate relationship to the harm actually done; and that it takes into account any non-financial remedies such as publication of corrections.

In addition, authorities should conduct an investigation into the genesis of street demonstrations in February protesting against Le Journal’s supposed publication of the controversial Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, and publicly release conclusions as to the role that specific public officials played in ordering and organizing them.

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