Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Moroccan journalists terror laws sentence upheld

Press groups are dismayed after a Moroccan appeals court upheld the sentences of two journalists convicted under the country’s anti-terror laws for publishing confidential information. The case is the latest in a string of reverses for press freedoms in Morocco. The two men were arrested for an article entitled "Secret reports behind the state of alert in Morocco" published in the weekly newspaper Al Watan Alaan’s 14 July edition. The report attracted the ire of the authorities and they pressed criminal charges against the authors for the possession of stolen materials. According to Khadija Riyadi, president of the Moroccan Human Rights Association, “Moroccan courts are used as a mechanism to clamp down on the press and mete out severe punishment to journalists who are known for their courage in breaking taboos".

The original court had imposed an eight month jail sentence on Mustapha Hurmatallah, the journalist who wrote the article. His boss Abderrahim Ariri was given a six-month suspended sentence. Moroccan journalists went on a brief strike to protest the original decision. Hurmatallah was released last week pending the decision but will now be forced to return to prison to serve out his time. The appeals court ruled against him but did reduce his sentence by one month. Ariri’s suspended sentence was also upheld and reduced by one month.

Two other press freedom cases are also in front of the courts. The publisher of the two Moroccan weeklies has been charged with showing disrespect to the monarchy. Moroccan Communication Minister Nabil Benabdellah tried to downplay criticisms that the government is trying to limit press freedom in the country. A delegation of press, human rights and the civil society organisations met the minister on Friday to protest about what they called breaches of freedom of speech rights. Benabdellah rejected their claims and the government is only trying to “consolidate democracy”.

Morocco was noted for having the freest press in the Arab world but many of these freedoms were eroded in the last five years. The Press Law was amended in 2002. The new law made it illegal to criticize Islam, the king, and the royal family. It is also illegal to publish anything that challenges Morocco's "territorial integrity," which is a coded reference to Morocco’s continued occupation of Western Sahara.

In the wake of the Casablanca suicide bombings of May 2003 the press lost further freedoms. Within eleven days of the bombs which killed 43 people near Western and Jewish targets, Morocco’s parliament overwhelmingly passed a controversial anti-terrorism law. The law broadened the definition of terrorism and defined a terrorist act as "any premeditated act, by an individual or a group, that aims to breach public order through terror and violence". The law had serious implications for the press, as its wording criminalised the dissemination of material deemed to support terrorism. Several journalists have been prosecuted under this law.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), says there is a “government-inspired judicial assault against outspoken newspapers”. It cites the 2006 case of the independent weekly newsmagazine Le Journal Hebdomadaire which had to pay 3 million dirhams (US$359,700) in a defamation suit brought by Claude Moniquet, head of the Brussels-based European Strategic Intelligence and Security Centre. Moniquet said the publication had defamed him in a six-page critique questioning the independence of his think tank’s report on the disputed Western Sahara.

In the trial, Le Journal Hebdomadaire was barred from introducing an expert witness and the court provided no explanation for how they reached the unprecedented damage award which threatened the magazine’s financial viability. Two days before the verdict, government-organised demonstrations were staged in front of the paper’s offices after malicious and incorrect rumours spread that the paper had reprinted the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad. The demonstration was not spontaneous. Moroccan officials recruited and provided transportation to people from poor neighborhoods who had been told that the target of the protests were “infidels” who had reprinted the cartoons.

Reporters Without Borders latest annual report said 2006 was a bad year for press freedoms in Morocco. It said the Arab-language weekly Nishan was shut down in December for “undermining Islam”. It also cites censorship, harassment and legal action against independent media which continued throughout the year. Morocco also banned foreign journalists reporting on human rights from going to Western Sahara. Detective arrested Jamal Wahbi, of the weekly Assahifa al-Maghribiya, for photographing three prisoners who were suspected terrorists coming out of a court building in the city. Meanwhile Al-Jazeera correspondent, Hassan Fatih, was physically attacked by police while covering a sit-in by the families of political prisoners in Rabat in June. He was taken to hospital with neck and shoulder injuries.

After Moroccan media went on strike to support the Mustapha Hurmatallah case, they received the backing of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). The IFJ called on media unions worldwide to support the striking journalists who stopped work for thirty minutes in August. “This case is looking more and more like a travesty of justice,” said IFJ Vice President Younes M’Jahed, “The press in Morocco is now facing a dangerous impasse where the authorities are spinning out of control, seizing publications and imprisoning journalists using the flimsiest excuses”.

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