Harassment of Outspoken Journalist

(Rabat) – Moroccan authorities should lift bureaucratic obstacles that have prevented an outspoken journalist and satirist, Ali Lmrabet, from publishing a new publication, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said today.

On June 24, Lmrabet went on a hunger strike in front of the United Nations headquarters in Geneva to protest the refusal by the local administration in the city of Tetouan to issue him a proof of residence, a document critical for renewing his identity documents and registering the weekly he is planning to start. On July 28, 2015, Interior Minister Mohamed Hassad outlined a path by which Lmrabet, who is currently in Europe, could “legally” obtain a proof of residence in Morocco. In response, the journalist ended his hunger strike.

Morocco’s press code does not require prior authorization to start a publication, but anyone wishing to do so must meet certain requirements including residing in Morocco, and must provide authorities with certain information, including the address of the director and editors of the publication.

“The interior minister says that Lmrabet can get his documents by following the procedures like any other citizen,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “We will take him at his word – even though Lmrabet has been jailed for his writings, banned from practicing his profession, and, more recently, was refused the official documents needed to register his magazine.”

Lmrabet has split his time between Tetouan and Spain since a Moroccan court in 2005 banned him from practicing journalism for 10 years as punishment for an article he wrote about the conflict over Western Sahara, which Morocco has controlled without international recognition since 1975. In 2003, a court sent him to prison and banned the two weeklies he published for “offending the king” and other speech offenses.

Hassad denied that Lmrabet’s administrative difficulties stemmed from his journalism, pointing out that his website had never been censored. On July 28, the minister suggested that Lmrabet, a Moroccan-French dual national, could obtain a proof of residence by renewing his passport at the Moroccan consulate in Barcelona, “where he resides,” and then demonstrating that he has lived at an address in Morocco for three months.

Lmrabet said he would follow this path and re-apply, even though he insists that authorities had already issued him a proof of residence that they arbitrarily took back.

Lmrabet has a long history of publishing articles and commentaries sharply critical of Morocco’s leaders. He published the weeklies Demain in French and Doumane in Arabic until 2003, when a court sentenced him to three years in prison and a fine for “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 newspapers. The court also banned his publications.

Lmrabet was freed by royal pardon in January 2004, only to be convicted of criminal defamation the following year for describing the Sahrawis living in camps in Algeria as “refugees” rather than referring to them as “captives” of the Polisario Front, the liberation movement for the Western Sahara. The court sentenced Lmrabet to the 10-year ban on practicing his profession, under article 87 of the penal code. Article 87 allows this punishment if there are “strong grounds to believe that if [the defendant] were to continue practicing that profession … he would pose a danger to public security, health, morality, or resources.”

In practice, the ban prevented Lmrabet from obtaining accreditation in Morocco, but not from filing articles. With his own newspapers banned, Lmrabet filed commentaries and reports mainly for Spanish newspapers, and founded an online journal, www.demainonline.com.

In April 2015, the month that the 10-year ban ended, Lmrabet announced he would publish a new satirical weekly. On April 21, the police station for the district in which Lmrabet’s parents’ home is located issued him a certificate showing that address as Lmrabet’s residence. The following day, Lmrabet said, the official who had issued the certificate contacted him to plead that he return it, explaining that “I was supposed to have sought instructions from my superiors before issuing you any documents,” and that his own career was now on the line.

Lmrabet said he pitied the officer and so returned the certificate after photocopying it. Since then, the governorate of Tetouan has refused to replace it, stating that their investigation determined that Lmrabet does not live at that address.

“Ali Lmrabet has agreed to test the good will of authorities, announcing plans to reside for three months at his Tetouan address,” said Said Boumedouha, Middle East and North Africa deputy director at Amnesty International. “Whether authorities then allow him to register his publication and publish views and information freely will be one gauge of freedom of expression in Morocco in 2015.”