Politically motivated prosecutions of independent newsweeklies are rolling back press freedom in Morocco, Human Rights Watch said in a briefing paper released today. Today the Casablanca appeals court confirmed a fine and one-year suspended sentence against the director of al-Mash`al (“The Torch”) weekly for “insulting” a foreign head of state.

In the last year, the courts have imposed heavy fines or suspended prison sentences on four weeklies or their journalists, and are trying a fifth.

“These recent prosecutions show how the authorities use the press code to restrict freedom of expression, especially on issues like the monarchy and the Western Sahara,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, director for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch. “This series of suspended prison sentences and heavy defamation awards will have a chilling effect on the independent press.”

Morocco’s press code provides an arsenal of repressive tools, including terms of imprisonment for vaguely defined speech offenses such as “undermining” the institution of the monarchy, Islam or the country’s “territorial integrity,” and “insulting” the king, foreign heads of state or diplomats. Judges can also send journalists to prison for defaming others or for publishing false information “that disturbs the public order.”

The newsweekly currently facing the heaviest pressure today is Le Journal Hebdomadaire (“The Weekly Journal”), which may have to close if forced to pay a record 3.1 million dirham (U.S.$356,500) libel judgment that an appeals court confirmed last month after an unfair trial. The court said Le Journal had libeled the Brussels-based think tank, the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center, when it characterized the center’s recent report on the Western Sahara as so pro-Moroccan that Moroccan authorities could well have ordered and paid for it.

The amounts awarded in recent libel judgments against Le Journal and its competitor, TelQuel (“Such As”), suggest that the courts see the defamation complaints as an opportunity to punish these weeklies for their insistent questioning of government policies. While recognizing the right of defamed parties to seek reparations in court, Human Rights Watch noted that the courts did not bother to show how the damages they set corresponded to any harm actually suffered.

In February, Le Journal came under further pressure through angry demonstrations against the newsweekly, which public authorities helped to orchestrate and state television then covered favorably. These demonstrations, fueled by false accusations that Le Journal had reprinted the notorious cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that first appeared in a Danish newspaper, were an ominous development in a country that had earned a reputation for having one of the region’s freest presses.

In addition, today the appeals court confirmed the conviction and punishment of al-Mash`al weekly for an article and caricature deemed “insulting” to Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. A lower court in February convicted al-Ayyam (“The Days”) of publishing “false information” in an article about the royal harem under previous Moroccan monarchs. Al-Ousbou`iyya al-Jadida (“The New Weekly”) is facing a trial for “undermining the monarchy” because it published an interview in which Nadia Yassine, a Moroccan Islamist also on trial for the same charge, said the institution of the monarchy was ill-suited to the country.

Human Rights Watch urged the Moroccan government to:

  • introduce amendments to the press code that will abolish or drastically limit criminal penalties for speech offenses;
  • make libel a strictly civil matter;
  • eliminate provisions that punish statements deemed “insulting” to Moroccan and foreign officials;
  • abolish or narrow the scope of provisions punishing statements that are deemed to “undermine” the monarchy, Islam or the country’s territorial integrity, or are judged to contain “false information” that “disturbs the public order.”

Human Rights Watch also said that authorities should advise judges hearing libel cases to consider the potential chilling effect of any award on freedom of expression. Judges should ensure that the award bears a proportionate relationship to the harm actually done, and takes into account any non-financial remedies such as publication of corrections.

“Morocco has earned a reputation for press freedom,” said Whitson. “But the recent prosecutions show that until the press code is reformed and judges give press freedom its due, the government can roll back that freedom at will.”