Reporters Without Borders is very worried about the current state of freedom of information in the Kingdom of Morocco, where French President François Hollande is due to begin a two-day visit on Saturday.
Moroccan journalists who violate the taboos on criticizing Islam, the monarchy or the country’s claim to Western Sahara are liable to receive heavy fines or long jail terms. Since the start of 2015, Reporters Without Borders has registered many cases of journalists being harassed or accused of defamation for criticizing government policy or for covering sensitive matters involving government officials. The authorities have had some of these journalists in their sights for years. Harassment of journalists Ali Lmrabet, who was banned in 2005 from working on a journalist for ten years, went on hunger strike for more than a month outside UN headquarters in Geneva in June and July in protest against the Moroccan government’s refusal to give him the identity documents he needs in order to resume working as a journalist. The onetime publisher of satirical magazines, Lmrabet has been harassed by the authorities since 2000 and was sentenced to three years in prison in 2003 on charges of insulting the king, endangering the monarchy and threatening Morocco’s territorial integrity. The case of Ali Anouzla is also typical of the way journalists who dare to broach taboo subjects such as the monarchy are subjected to judicial harassment. Anouzla was held for five weeks on a terrorism charge in 2013 for posting a link to a story on the Spanish daily El País’s website that included a video posted by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Anouzla recently launched Lakome2, a successor to his first website Lakome, which the authorities closed two years ago. Mahmoud Al-Haissan, a young blogger and journalist with the Polisario Front TV station, is another example. Freed in February after being held for eight months, he is still charged with participating in an “armed gathering,” obstructing a public thoroughfare, attacking officials while they were on duty, and damaging public property. He was arrested after filming how the security forces used violence to disperse peaceful demonstrations in the Western Sahara capital of El Aaiún during the World Cup in Brazil in June 2014. The demonstrations were dispersed when the young Sahrawi participants began chanting independence slogans. After Hamid El Mehdaoui, the editor of the independent website Badil.info, posted an article about a car explosion in the northern city of Meknès in January, he was charged with publishing false news “in bad faith” and disturbing public order. The charges were prompted by a complaint by the region’s governor, who preferred to think the car caught fire and exploded of its own accord. As a result, El Mehdaoui was fined and the site was closed in August, just weeks after he was given a four-month suspended prison sentence and was ordered to pay a fine and damages for “mendacious” coverage of the death of a young man called Karim Lachkar in police custody. The source for El Mehdaoui’s coverage, which had elicited a complaint by the Director-General for National Security, also received a suspended jail sentence. Niny Rachid, the editor of the Arabic-language daily Al-Akhbar, was ordered to pay a heavy fine in July in a libel case brought by the minister of equipment and transport over two articles accusing a private company of using substandard material in the construction of a section of motorway. Rachid has appealed. In June, the news website Goud.ma and its publisher, Ahmed Najim, were convicted of defaming and insulting the king’s private secretary for reproducing an article that accused him of corruption. If Najim loses his appeal, he will have to pay a large sum in damages as well as a fine. Online surveillance Professional and non-professional journalists alike are subjected to online surveillance. The targets include Mâati Monjib, the head of the NGO Freedom Now and the Moroccan Association of Investigative Journalism (AMJI), who began a hunger strike yesterday in protest. He is wanted by the police on a charge of “endangering state security” in connection with the training that Freedom Now provides to multimedia journalists. AMJI’s members are also being hounded and one of them, Hicham Mansouri, was sentenced to ten months in prison in March on a trumped-up adultery charge. The interior ministry filed a complaint in July about a recent report by Privacy International and Morocco’s Digital Rights Association (ADN) condemning the surveillance methods used by the authorities against journalists and online activists. ADN’s members and the sources quoted in the report are liable to be arrested or picked up for questioning at any time. ADN vice-president Karima Nadir was already interrogated for five hours at the headquarters of the Judicial Police National Brigade (BNPJ) on 8 September. The international media are also subjected to censorship and harassment. French journalists with France Télévisions and France 24 were expelled in January and February for intending to work without a permit after they tried without success to get permits before going to Morocco. The authorities often dispute our reports and insist that media freedom is progressing in Morocco. Reporters Without Borders is nonetheless of the view that media freedom is deteriorating slowly but steadily. Reporters Without Borders has acknowledged that a proposed overhaul of the press and publishing code contains improvements such as the abolition of prison sentences for media offences. But these improvements are not enough, and it seems that there is still a long way to go before parliament votes on the bill. Morocco is ranked 130th out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.