Freedom House (Autor)
Press freedom in Morocco declined further in 2007, despite the country’s efforts to promote itself as a modernizing Muslim state. Although the constitution guarantees freedom of expression, the Press Law prohibits criticism of the monarchy and Islam and effectively bars material challenging the government’s position on the status of Western Sahara. Journalists who cross long-established red lines or violate press legislation are subject to heavy fines and prison sentences of up to five years. While the government imprisons journalists less often than in the past, it now employs an array of economic pressures—such as stiff fines and subtler forms of legal harassment—to punish and threaten independent and opposition journalists into practicing self-censorship. After years of promising an updated and more liberal Press Law, King Mohamed VI finally introduced a draft in 2007. However, the bill retained many of the old law’s restrictive penalties and increased fines tenfold. The legislation was still pending at year’s end.
According to government statistics, 26 complaints were filed against the press in 2007. On January 15, a Moroccan court sentenced director and editor Driss Ksikes and journalist Sanaa al-Aji from the independent weekly Nichane to suspended prison terms of three years and one year, respectively, and fines of about US$10,400 for the publication of an article that analyzed popular Moroccan jokes considered offensive to Islam. Also that month, in a major blow to independent journalism, Aboubakr Jamai, one of the deans of Morocco’s independent press corps, left the country to avoid government seizure of his assets and closure of his weekly Le Journal Hebdomadaire. Jamai’s departure stemmed from a 2006 court decision that found him guilty of the defamation of the head of a Belgian think tank, to whom he was ordered to pay over US$300,000. The record-breaking penalty was believed to be politically motivated given the nature of Jamai’s publications, which for years were unrelenting in their reporting on government corruption at all levels. Separately, prior to the parliamentary elections in the fall, authorities in August seized copies of Nichane and its sister publication, TelQuel, after the latter published an editorial that was critical of the election process and the king’s role in government. The editor of the publication also faced criminal charges. Al-Watan publisher Abderrahim Ariri and journalist Mustapha Hormatallah were arrested in July for an article that revealed information from a confidential military document. Both received prison sentences in August, in part for not revealing confidential sources, although Ariri’s sentence was suspended. There were no reports of extralegal physical attacks on journalists during the year, though at least one reporter received death threats. Coverage of human rights abuses in Western Sahara or open debate on its future status remains largely off limits for domestic media. While foreign journalists can work with relative freedom in Morocco, authorities are as sensitive with the foreign press as they are with local journalists when it comes to the issue of Western Sahara. In February 2007, police in the region’s capital El Aaiun detained Swedish freelance photographer Lars Bjork for 19 hours, interrogating him and confiscating his camera after he took photos of protesters.
Morocco is home to a large number of private print publications, many of them critical of the government. Seventeen dailies and 90 weekly publications are in circulation. However, circulation is limited, and most papers receive subsidies from the Ministry of Communication. The government has the power to revoke licenses and suspend or confiscate publications. Broadcast news media are still dominated by the state, but residents can access critical reports through pan-Arab and other satellite channels. Francophone Moroccans can also access French-language broadcasts that provide alternative viewpoints. The internet serves as an alternate source of news and perspectives for many Moroccans. There are six online news sites, including three in French, two in Arabic, and one in English. There is no official legislation regulating internet content or access, but the government occasionally blocks certain websites and online tools, including Google Earth and Livejournal. In May 2007, access to the video-sharing site YouTube was temporarily blocked by the state-owned ISP Maroc Telecom though it was still available through smaller, privately-owned providers. Slightly over 21 percent of the population accessed the internet in 2007.