2003 06 17
[Press freedom in Morocco]
This just in . . .
This just in from Human Right Watch:
Press Freedom in Morocco Set Back by Journalist Jailing
(Washington D.C., June 18, 2003) — The affirmation Tuesday of a 3-year
prison term for journalist Ali Mrabet is a grave blow to press freedom in
Morocco, Human Rights Watch said today. A Rabat appeals court upheld a lower
court verdict that also banned the independent weeklies that Mrabet directs,
Demain and its Arabic sister Douman.
“With this unjust ruling, Morocco joins those countries in the region that
imprison journalists,” said Hanny Megally, executive director of Human Rights
Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division. “Mrabet’s weeklies were among
the brightest indicators of free expression in Morocco. They belong on the
newsstands, and Mrabet belongs at his editorial desk, not in a prison cell.”
Mrabet has been in prison since his May 21 lower-court conviction on charges
of “insulting the king,” “undermining the monarchy, and “endangering the
integrity of national territory” for articles, interviews and cartoons that
appeared in the two Casablanca-based publications. The appeals court reduced
his prison term from four to three years but left in force a fine of 20,000
dirhams (about U.S. $2,168).
Mrabet began a hunger strike on May 6 to protest the government action
against him and against his printer. He has been hospitalized since May 26
due to his hunger strike and did not attend the court’s ruling.
The items in Demain and Douman that prompted the charges under the press code
– An article about the budget that the state allocates to the royal court;
– A montage that allegedly manipulated photographs from King Mohamed VI’s
wedding to ridicule ex-interior minister Driss Basri and other political
– A cartoon on the “history of slavery” that lampooned the obsequiousness
of local officials toward the monarchy;
– An interview with Moroccan political activist Abdullah ZaÆ’zaa in which
he restated his well-known views critical of the monarchy as an institution
and in favor of self-determination for the people of the disputed Western
In a nearly unprecedented move against a journalist in Morocco, Mrabet was
imprisoned upon his original conviction by the Rabat Court of First Instance.
The judge invoked Article 400 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which allows
for the court to jail defendants who are appealing their convictions if they
are deemed dangerous or likely to flee. The appeals court judge rejected
defense motions to obtain Mrabet’s provisional release.
Morocco’s constitution guarantees freedom of expression. But the press code,
revised in 2002, provides prison terms for a wide array of speech offenses,
such as the ones for which Mrabet was convicted.
After this confirmation of the verdict on appeal, Mrabet’s only legal
recourse is a pourvoi en cassation before the Supreme Court, a challenge that
can be based on procedural but not on substantive issues.
“This is a sad day for those who placed hope in the king’s pledges to expand
public liberties,” said Megally.
On April 17, prior to this conviction, Moroccan police prevented Mrabet from
traveling to France, a move that was rescinded a week later. In November
2001, a court convicted him for an article in Demain concerning reports that
one of the royal palaces might be sold for redevelopment. Sentenced then to
four months in prison and a fine, Mrabet had been free pending an appeal of
To read more on human rights issues in Morocco, please see:
The Moroccan verdict is a bad step in the wrong direction. It is also something of a fresh challenge to the Bush admin. It always puzzled me that the U.S. was supposed to be able to democratize Iraq when it often hadn’t been willing to put more than minimal pressure on other countries in the region to democratize. (Though, I should say, the Bush administration did act wisely recently in pressing the Egyptian government to relent in its persection of the Egyptian intellectual Saad Ibrahim. The pressure worked, and Ibrahim was finally cleared of all charges and released.) This, I think, is an important test of the admin’s credibility on this issue. It needs to make clear to Morocco that this sort of nonsense is going to do real damage to bilateral relations with the U.S., that it carries a real cost.
I believe that this is yet another area where moral responsibility overlaps significantly with self-interest. The U.S. has a real interest in Morocco’s long term health, and that is precisely what is threatened by the recent crackdown.