Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
US Department of State
Paris, 28 October 2009
Dear Secretary of State Clinton,
Reporters Without Borders, an organisation that defends press freedom worldwide, would like to draw your attention to the disturbing deterioration in the press freedom situation in Morocco on the eve of your official visit to that country on 2-3 November.
Ten years after Mohammed VI’s accession to the throne in 1999, the record is very uneven. The start of his reign saw real advances but they were followed by reverses and tension, especially from July 2009 onwards. Courts have ordered Moroccan newspapers to pay more than 2 million euros in fines and damages since 1999, while journalists have been sentenced to a combined total of 28 years in prison.
Although fewer topics had seemed to be still off-limits in recent years thanks to the independent press’s tenacity and an apparent desire on the part of King Mohammed to ease restrictions, the Royal Palace has reaffirmed some of the taboos in recent months, especially those affecting the image of the king and members of the royal family.
Prosecutions are being brought against news media and journalists, who are being sentenced to jail terms or to pay exorbitant damages awards as the judicial system deploys an arsenal of sanctions designed to intimidate and financially asphyxiate the independent press.
At the end of a trial that did not respect defence rights, a Rabat court sentenced Driss Chahtaneof the newspaper Al-Michaal on 15 October to a year in prison over an article about the king’s health. Two other journalists, Rachid Mahamid and Mustapha Hayrane, were given three-month jail terms in connection with the same article and all three were ordered to pay several thousand dirhams in damages. Chahtane was arrested and jailed that evening.
As a result of a supreme court ruling on 30 September, Le Journal Hebdomadaire, one of Morocco’s few independent newspapers, was ordered to pay 250,000 euros in damages on 18 October in connection with a libel suit brought in 2006 by a think-tank based abroad over an article about Western Sahara. If the weekly is forced to pay, its survival will be in doubt.
On 26 October, a court in Rabat gave Ali Anouzla, the editor of the daily Al-Jarida Al-Oula, a one-year suspended jail sentenced and fined him 10,000 dirhams (885 euros) on a charge of publishing false information and “mendacious allegations and facts with the intention of causing harm” in a 27 August article that contradicted a bulletin about King Mohammed’s health. Bouchra Eddou, a journalist charged with complicity in the same case, got a three-month suspended sentenced and a fine of 5,000 dirhams (455 euros). Both say they will appeal.
Taoufiq Bouachrine, the publisher of the Casablanca-based newspaper Akhbar al-Youm, and cartoonist Khalid Gueddar will be the targets of two parallel lawsuits on 30 October in connection with a cartoon of Moulay Ismaïl, a cousin of the king, that appeared in its 26-27 September issue. One of the actions, brought by the interior ministry, accuses them of “attacking an emblem of the kingdom.” The other, brought by Ismaïl himself, is demanding 266,000 euros in damages for “failing to accord due respect to a member of the royal family.” The newspaper’s headquarters have meanwhile been closed and are being guarded by police.
Reporters Without Borders has just completed a visit to Morocco in which it met with journalists and representatives of Moroccan media in difficulty and publicly expressed its support at a news conference yesterday in Casablanca.
Reporters Without Borders urges you to use the opportunity offered by your visit to Morocco to talk about the difficulties that the independent media are facing and to raise this crucial issue with the Moroccan authorities. The aim of the Forum of the Future which the US government set up in 2004 is to promote democratisation in the Broader Middle East and North Africa region. Press freedom is an essential component of this democratisation.
We thank you in advance for the attention you give to this matter.