Reporters Without Borders voiced alarm today at a resurgence in curbs on press freedom in Morocco following four cases in the past two weeks that have shown which sensitive issues journalists may not cover without paying a price.
"Moroccan journalists are free to work as long as they do not cross the lines set down by the royal palace," the press freedom organization said. "Three subjects have been clearly identified as off-limits in three recent cases - internal affairs at the palace, the issue of Western Sahara and the various kinds of trafficking in which senior officials are sometimes implicated. Journalists who do not censor themselves are severely punished."
Reporters Without Borders said the Moroccan authorities last year gave a few encouraging signs as regards press freedom, but now they have backed away by clearly adopting a policy aimed at reining journalists in.
The organization added: "We firstly call for an end to the use of the courts to silence critical journalists, secondly for the police and judicial authorities to find and punish those who physically attacked journalist Abderrahmane Bensfaia, and finally for the palace to stop displaying such extreme irritability, most often in the form of threats."
In the most recent of the four cases, a Rabat court yesterday sentenced Ali Lmrabet to a ten-year ban on working as a journalist and a fine of 50,000 dirhams (about 4,500 euros) over a defamation suit prompted by remarks he made about the Sahrawi refugees living in camps in Tindouf, in southwestern Algeria.
Hamid Naimi, the editor of the weekly Kawaliss Rif (Stories of the Rif), was last month convicted on several libel counts in Nador (550 km northeast of Rabat) in cases dating back to 1998 that had been closed but were reactivated after he published an article in November about the embezzlement of public funds by a number of Nador officials. A Nador court heard around 40 of these renewed complaints within a week and sentenced him to a cumulative sentence of three years in prison and a fine of around 40,000 euros.
Since creating his newspaper in 1996, Naimi has often incurred the wrath of the authorities, especially by his calls for independence for the Rif region.
Abderrahmane Bensfaia, the correspondent of the Arabic-language national daily Annahar Al Maghribiya (Moroccan days) in El Jadida (200 km south of Rabat), was slapped and kicked by thugs employed by the owner of several local restaurants and bars on 22 March while researching a report on tourism, especially sex tourism.
He filed a complaint the same day but, when reached by telephone, he said the investigation was stalled as the authorities had not questioned the perpetrators.
The Arabic-language weekly Al Jarida Al Oukhra (The Other Newspaper) received a "warning" from Abdelhak El Mrini, the director of protocol at the ministry of the royal family, after it ran a story on 6 April about the daily activities of Princess Lalla Selma, the wife of King Mohammed VI. Mrini accused the newspaper of "meddling in the princess's private life" and added, "any information or news about the private life of members of the royal family fall strictly within the domain of the ministry of the royal family and protocol."
Ali Anouzla, the weekly's editor, told Reporters Without Borders he did not think they wrote anything negative about the princess. On the contrary, he said, the story portrayed a woman close to her people who perfectly combined tradition with modernity. "This letter has no legal basis," he said. "Royal protocol is not qualified to judge the work of journalists, which is regulated by the law, not ancestral customs. This is the difference between the rule of law and a state of exception," he added.