Hassan Rachidi, Al Jazeera Arabic's bureau chief in Morocco, is set to stand trial on charges the channel broadcast false information when it reported on protests in the city of Sidi Ifni.
|Ahmed Sheikh says the Arabic channel has
done nothing wrong
Quoting a Moroccan rights group, the channel reported that people died in clashes with police during a demonstration over poverty and unemployment in the southwestern city on June 7.
Rachidi faces charges of publishing false information with "the intention to disturb public order". If convicted, he could face a prison term of between one and 12 months and a fine of between 1,200 and 100,000 Moroccan Dirhams ($165-$13,739).
"We are not going to apologise. We did not make any mistake," says Ahmed Sheikh, editor-in-chief of the Arabic news channel.
Sheikh explains the events behind the story and why he believes the channel, based in Doha, Qatar was right to defend its coverage of the Sidi Ifni incident.
Q: Why has the Moroccan government decided to charge Al Jazeera over its coverage of this event?
Ahmed Sheikh: I have no idea. I think Moroccan authorities should answer this question, not us.
I believe we did not make any mistake. We were doing business as usual and then, all of a sudden, they decided to suspend our bulletin from [our bureau in Rabat].
But they never gave the reason. We never received any complaint from them as far as I know.
How did Al Jazeera come to report these events and why was that seen as controversial?
We got the information from human rights groups. Those people came on air and confirmed that there were deaths in that city. The story was also published by international news agencies and some Moroccan newspapers themselves.
We were among those news organisations that got this information and aired it, but only we faced the backlash. I do not know why.
Khalid Naciri, the Moroccan communication minister, recently told an Arabic newspaper that Al Jazeera was taken to court because it was the first media outlet to run a story on the Sidi Ifni protests and that other media organisations followed suit. Is this accurate?
It is not true.
I read the international news agency reports and they never quoted us. Though they published the same information, they never said Al Jazeera had said that four, six or eight people were killed in Sidi Ifni protests. They had their own sources who told them that.
Why do you think Al Jazeera was taken to court and not other media outlets who reported the story?
I do not know. This question should be answered by the Moroccan government and not us.
They should take all correspondents of international news agencies and some Moroccan newspapers to court as well for running the same story.
Fair enough if they have decided to take Hassan Rachidi to court because we were the first to break the news that people were killed in that city. Furthermore, the Moroccan parliament has decided to send a fact-finding mission to the city to decide whether actually people were killed or not.
This is contradictory. They should have waited till that fact-finding mission completed its job and came back with a final resolution to that matter. But they have not waited. I think they are looking for a scapegoat and they found Al Jazeera to be the most suitable.
What is your response to the demand by Moroccan authorities that Al Jazeera apologises to the Moroccan people for reporting what it says was false information?
Why don't they ask other news outlets to apologise? The story was carried by Moroccan newspapers and the international wires and other TV stations as well. So why only Al Jazeera?
Our sources are well known. Human right groups have confirmed these deaths actually occurred. Even now, Moroccan newspapers are carrying horrifying details of what happened in Sidi Ifni.
They are reporting about rapes, torture and people fleeing to the mountains. They are reporting that four bodies were found floating in the sea. How can they explain that? What did we do that we should apologise for? We quoted Moroccan sources and Moroccan newspapers carried the story. We carried the official denial of the Moroccan government over the deaths.
We are not going to apologise. We did not make any mistake.
Moroccan authorities are reported to have become increasingly displeased about the content of Al Jazeera's programmes and have used the Sidi Ifni incident as an excuse to pressure the channel. How do you respond to that accusation?
We reject being pressured. The guests who talk to us on different issues tell their own points of view. They do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera's point of view. Why should we be blamed for what people say?
We are in an age where the internet can allow people to express their point of views freely around the world. Why don't our governments become more tolerant towards other opinions instead of getting angry and mad over them? Surely they should be more accommodating, tolerant and open.
Al Jazeera also has repeatedly run stories on the successes achieved by the kingdom of Morocco. We hailed as a very good thing The Equity and Reconciliation Commission that was formed to address abuses in Morocco.
We reported and discussed the government's projects to eliminate shanty towns around the big cities. The agricultural reforms in Morocco are another success story that we covered. We dedicated long hours to covering the demonstrations by Moroccans in various parts of the kingdom who were angered when the king of Spain visited occupied cities of Sebta and Melilia.
As journalists, we are here to tell the world, including the people of Morocco and in the Arab world, about our real problems.
Why should we shy away from covering these bad things if they exist? Is covering-up the problems a way of solving them?
Moroccan authorities have suspended our bulletins, even before the Sidi Ifni incident. So, if they are seeking to try and pressure us, we say this is wrong.
Is there any basis to speculation that Al Jazeera may move its operations to other neighbouring capitals if a settlement is not reached with Moroccan authorities over the incident? And what will be the future for the Maghreb bulletin if Moroccan authorities refuse to renew Al Jazeera's licence to broadcast?
All options are on the table, including whether to shift to another capital or to broadcast from here in Doha, but the Maghreb bulletin will continue to be aired.
It has been a very popular bulletin in Maghreb countries [Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania] since it began airing one-and-a-half years ago and has established its own audience.
So, although, all options are on the table regarding the Maghreb bulletin, I can assure everybody it will continue.