Benchemsi, an editor, is charged with showing disrespect towards the monarchy

 

Complaints about a purported clampdown by the government on the media are getting louder as Morocco prepares for the September 7 parliamentary elections.

Al Jazeera exclusive

Morroco's media on trial

Government officials say they understand the importance of a free media in building participatory democracy, and insist that Morocco is committed to press freedom.

But Freedom House, a non-governmental think-tank based in the US, said in a 2006 survey that "legal harassment" of journalists had increased.

Although Morocco's press is widely seen as the freest in the Arab world, the authorities warn that media workers should not consider themselves to be above the law.

Criticism of Islam, the king and the royal family or publishing anything that challenges Morocco's "territorial integrity," which is an indirect reference to the Western Sahara, can result in heavy fines and lengthy prison sentences.

Khadija Riyadi, president of the Moroccan Human Rights Association, said: "Freedom of the press is going through a real crisis in Morocco. Journalists have been arrested and harassed on numerous occasions. Lawsuits are brought against some journalists as part of such legal harassment and given harsh punishments."

Overstepping the bounds

In August alone, three journalists were brought before the courts for overstepping the bounds of permissible reporting.

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Ahmed Benchemsi, now editor of the Arabic language weekly Nichane (Forthright) and its French-language sister publication Tel Quel (As It Is), appeared in a court on August 24 to face charges of showing disrespect towards the monarchy.

The trial of Benchemsi, who is being prosecuted under Article 24 of the Press Law, has been postponed for a week. If convicted he could be jailed for up to five years.
 
Tel Quel and Nichane both have a history of run-ins with the authorities: they regularly expose errant officials and test the limits of free speech in the kingdom.

In January, Nichane was shut down for two months after it published jokes deemed offensive to Islam.

Prison sentences

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Two other journalists, Driss Ksikes, who was editor of Nichane at the time, and Sanaa al-Aji, one of its reporters, were both given suspended three-year jail terms.

The verdict prompted Ksikes to leave his job at the weekly.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, he said: "I have decided to stay away from journalism in Morocco. I am going over to the internet as a writer. But I have decided to remain free and not practise any sort of self-censorship.

"The way I see things are going on, I realise that you can't go on being as free as I think we should be. To have a clear conscience, I decided to resign."

Leaked intelligence

The trial of Benchemsi came two weeks after another court handed down an eight-month jail sentence to Mustapha Hurmatallah, a reporter for the Arabic-language weekly Al Watan Alaan (The Homeland Now).

His editor was given a six-month suspended prison term for allegedly publishing leaked intelligence on a "terror" plot.

Riyadi, a rights activist, says freedom of the
press is under threat in Morocco

They were both convicted on the charge of receiving and concealing stolen documents.

The sentences triggered outrage among rights activists and lawyers, who accused the court of treating the two journalists' "crime" no different from that committed by a common thief.

"The independent press in particular is the main target in this kind of intimidation," Riyadi says.
 
"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.

"There are also kinds of legal manipulation. I do not understand why some journalists are prosecuted under the criminal law and not under the Press Law."

She said the Moroccan Human Rights Association views this as an "act of intimidation".
 
The case of Le Journal Hebdomadaire weekly illustrates the widening gap in the way journalists and government officials view the same issue.

Ali Amar, who also works at the weekly, said that in August he had to withhold the publication of an edition until the authorities gave him clearance.
 
He had to do this despite having submitted an advance copy of the edition to the communications ministry for approval, he said.

Amar criticises what he calls Morocco's return to rigid press censorship. "It's really a return to the 1970s when all Moroccan publications were subjected to censorship," he says.

The communications ministry denies Amar's allegation. 
 
Media 'gadflies'

Observers recall that in June 2003, the last time the government took action against those it considered to be media "gadflies", it led to prison terms for one of them.
 
Foreign monitors of the forthcoming parliamentary vote have voiced concern that a fresh media clampdown diminishes the chances of the election campaign gaining momentum.

Frances Fitzgerald, who heads a delegation of the US-based National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, said in a report made public on August 15, that the free flow of information is particularly vital in the run-up to the election.
 
Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based media rights watchdog, said the restrictions on independent media institutions are an indicator that violations of press freedom are mounting alarmingly in Morocco.

Relatively free

Despite the criticism, Morocco has generally won praise for the relative freedom it affords its media.

In its 2003 report, Freedom House said a new media law, announced in 2002, reduced jail terms, required the government to give reasons for any confiscations and "makes it easier to launch a publication".

Local observers note that substantial progress has been made in the creation of a free and privately owned industry, with hundreds of licences issued to private companies at the regional and national levels in recent years.

They regard the step as good for both a healthy media and for private investment in the industry.

The process in the 1980s and '90s was much more complicated as applicantions for a licence had to go through the interior ministry and the court. In most cases, the applications were
either rejected or ignored.

Simplified process

A government official, who asked to remain anonymous, said the process had since been simplified.

Ksikes, ex-editor of Nichane, says the state
now wants to regulate liberty

"Applicants can get their licence from the communications ministry without any hassle," he said.

"Also, in the past, all publications used to be censored by the state. But now no publication is subject to any prior censorship.

"That's why legal measures against media organisations or journalists are taken after the publication of materials that cross the red lines. This in itself is proof that there is no state censorship."

But Ksikes takes a different view.

He says: "I think six or seven years ago, the state needed to allow more freedom of expression for the sake of a facade, and also to build a more enterprising society and encourage innovation.

"Now there is more energy in the economy and there is a good facade for the benefit of the external world.

"So the state is now feeling the need to regulate and to control this liberty [of expression] because it is being seen by the establishment as having gone too far."

 

Source: Al Jazeera