Real progress at the start of King Mohammed’s reign has been followed by reverses and tension, especially from 2002 onwards, Reporters Without Borders said today in an evaluation of the state of press freedom in Morocco on the eve of the 10th anniversary of Mohammed VI’s accession to the throne on 23 July 1999.
The priority continues to be a thorough overhaul of the press code, which is much too severe, the press freedom organisation stressed. In the past 10 years, Moroccan journalists have been sentenced to a total of 25 years in prison and news media have been fined a total of 2 million euros.
Moroccan journalists are undeniably freer to work now than they were 10 years ago and fewer subjects, if any, are still taboo thanks to the independent press’s tenacity and King Mohammed’s desire to ease restrictions. Despite the risk of lawsuits, journalists can tackle stories that were completely off-limits 10 years ago such as the monarchy, the government, Islam, sexuality and Western Sahara.
Reporters Without Borders also hails the fact that no journalists are currently in prison for press offences even if there are many prisoners of conscience.
The number of daily and weekly newspapers has grown dramatically since 1999 and several new radio and TV stations were given licenses when state control of broadcasting began to be relaxed in May 2006, offering Moroccans some diversity in this sector for the first time. Despite the impartiality of the High Council for Broadcasting (CSCA), there was widespread disappointment that no new TV stations and only four new radio stations (either regional or specialist ones) were awarded licences in a second wave in February of this year. There had been 23 applicants.
Although Morocco now tolerates more media criticism and more editorial freedom, the Palace still does not accept that the media have an important role to play. It allows some leeway to print media journalists because only 1 per cent of the population buys newspapers and magazines. And only a few newspapers such as Tel Quel and Le Journal hebdomadaire are really independent.
The media still has to face obstacles, archaic laws and arbitrary reactions. Policemen often assault reporters and photographers and confiscate their equipment. Twenty policemen raided the Arabic-language weekly Al Ayam on 10 February just because of a photo of a member of the royal family which it had requested permission to publish. Combined total of nearly 25 years in prison for journalists since 1999
Journalists can still be jailed under the Moroccan press code. The media were angered by the code’s latest revision, in May 2002, because the possibility of prison sentences was maintained even if the maximum terms were cut significantly (for example, from 20 to five years for attacks on the king’s honour).
The most draconian article, 41, extended the defamation law’s applicability to Islam and Morocco’s territorial integrity, while the courts, in addition to the executive, were given the power to suspend or close newspapers. The latter provision would arguably have been a move in the right direction if it had not been for the fact that Morocco’s courts are not independent.
The repressive and vaguely-worded press code continues to represent the biggest problem for the Moroccan media. The most urgently-needed change is the decriminalisation of press offences. The possibility of imprisonment is a permanent threat hanging over journalists. Ali Lmrabet, Abderrahmane Badraoui, Anas Tadili, Mustapha Hormatallah, Younès Erraji and Fouad Mourtada are among the journalists and bloggers who have been given jail terms in the past few years.
The Lmrabet case was a front-page story in 2003. The editor of Morocco’s first satirical publications, Demain magazine and Douman, Lmrabet was given a three-year sentence on charges of attacking the monarchy, insulting the king and endangering Morocco’s territorial integrity. He was given a royal pardon on 7 January 2004, but his publications are still banned and he is forbidden to work as a journalist for 10 years from 12 April 2005.
The 2002 press code reform was the first sign of a tougher attitude after the relaxation that had followed Mohammed’s accession to the three years earlier. An anti-terrorism law adopted in May 2003 increased the media’s fears because vaguely-worded passages about news coverage of terrorist activities could be interpreted in an arbitrary fashion.
Government officials and journalists began discussing a proposed new reform of the press code in 2007 but thereafter the talks ground to a halt.
More than 2 million euros in fines since 1999
A decline in the number of jail sentences in the past four years has been offset by an increase in the number of lawsuits against newspaper editors, whether brought officially by the palace or not. These lawsuits have resulted in the imposition of disproportionate and exorbitant fines designed to stifle the newspapers targeted.
Al Massae and its editor, Rachid Nini, were fined 6 million dirhams (550,000 euros) in October 2008 for allegedly defaming several prosecutors in the Ksar El Kébir region. Three daily newspapers, Jarida Al-Aoula, Al-Ahdath Al-Maghribia and Al-Massae, were ordered to pay a total of 3 million dirhams (270,000 euros) in damages to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi on 29 June for publishing opinion pieces that allegedly libelled him.
The following day, the monthly Economie et Entreprises was ordered on appeal to pay 5.9 million dirhams (531,000 euros) in damages for supposedly libelling a holding company owned by the royal family.
There are other problems. Access to government information continues to be difficult. And neither the courts nor the police respect the principle that journalists’ sources should be regarded as confidential.
Issues of foreign publications are still sometimes banned because of content that upsets the authorities. Distribution of the 30 October 2008 issue of the French weekly L’Express was banned under article 29 of the press code outlawing attacks on “Islam, the monarchy, territorial integrity and due respect for the king and public order” because of a cover story headlined: “Jesus and Mohammed – their itinerary, their message and their vision of the world.” It was also banned in Algeria and Tunisia.
More recently, the 9 July issue of the French weekly Courrier International was banned by the communication ministry on 16 July.
While more liberal than his father Hassan, King Mohammed has given contradictory signals as to whether he really wants to democratise the regime and the country. A thorough reform of the press code would clearly be a positive step in this direction.
Reporters Without Borders calls for the abolition of jail sentences for journalists, more proportionate fines and damages in defamation cases and a clearer wording of the more repressive provisions such as article 41, which leaves too much room for arbitrary decisions by the courts.
Provisions in the press code concerning “offensive” or “insulting” comments about Moroccan or foreign officials, “attacks” on the monarchy, Islam or Morocco’s territorial integrity, “false information” or “disturbing public order” should either be scrapped or the penalties should be reduced.
Judicial independence, better training for journalists, a commitment to human rights on the part of the security forces and more governmental transparency would help to achieve these goals. And the palace should begin regarding press freedom as essential to Morocco’s democratisation and modernisation rather than a Pandora’s box that threatens the monarchy.