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Morocco: War on Press Continues

Categories: Middle East & North Africa, Morocco, Freedom of Speech

The Moroccan authorities are ratcheting up their attacks on independent journalists. A week rarely passes without the authorities hitting hard on the press for alleged infractions, cracking down on printed as well as online media. Press freedom watchdogs like Reporters Without Borders [1] judge the situation of Press freedom in the country now as “difficult,” condemning a “judicial system [that] deploys an arsenal of sanctions designed to intimidate and financially asphyxiate the independent press.”

Bar(a)ka [2]The latest attack on record has been a jail sentence pronounced on Monday from a court in Casablanca against Said Laâjal, a journalist in Al Massa'e, a widely read daily newspaper, and his publisher Rachid Nini, a popular columnist. Both journalists have been accused of “publication of false information” in connection with an article on a case of drug trafficking. Nini has declared that he won't be appealing the verdict (source: AFP). Bloggers have been reflecting on the case and the state of affairs.

eatbees, an American novelist, photographer and blogger who lives in Morocco has his suspicions [3]about the real motivation of the prosecutors. He writes:

This is the criminalization of journalism, pure and simple. Reporters sometimes make mistakes and report things that turn out to be false. There are ways to handle that, but sending the journalists to jail is not one of them. I have the strong suspicion that Nini and Laâjal were prosecuted, not because of the facts of the case, but because they embarrassed someone important. Or maybe this was just a convenient way to go after Nini, who as publisher of Morocco’s most widely read newspaper and author of Morocco’s most widely read opinion column, is becoming a power center in his own right.

If Nini follows through on his commitment not to appeal, and goes to prison, it will be an act of courage and of civil disobedience. It will make him a martyr for press freedom in the eyes of millions of Moroccans. Good luck with that, Moroccan state.

It is worth mentioning that the journalist is already under a heavy fine for libel, threatening to bankrupt the whole publication, as blogger Ibn Kafka wrote recently [4][Fr], referring to a letter alleged to be written by Nini, pleading for a royal pardon:

Rachid Nini vit légitimement fort bien de cette florissante entreprise de presse (dans le contexte ravagé de la presse marocaine)…
[Il] aurait adressé une supplique au Roi […] dans laquelle il demande l’absolution des pêchés – en clair, la grâce pour son journal. Rien ne permet de garantir cette information, qui en soi n’est pas infâmante.

Rachid Nini gets a legitimately comfortable living out of his successful press business (relative to the devastated Moroccan media landscape) …
Some believe Nini had sent a letter of supplication to the King in which he seeks absolution of sins – in clear, asking for a pardon for his newspaper. There is no confirmation of that information, which in itself is not infamous.

Rachid Nini has raised controversy recently when he publicly disavowed one of his journalists who showed support for colleagues who were being harrassed and prosecuted by the government. Larbi, who is blogging on Comme une bouteille jetée à la mer!, argues [5][Fr] this doesn't make Nini worthy of a jail sentence nor should the journalist be considered a hero. He writes:

[H]eureusement que tout le monde n’a pas la même conception de la liberté d’expression et liberté de la presse que celle de Monsieur Nini. La place des journalistes n’est pas la prison mais dans leurs rédactions. Cela vaut pour tous les journalistes. Cela vaut pour Monsieur Nini . Et encore plus pour le journaliste Saïd Laâjal. La place de Rachid Nini et de Saïd Laâjal n’est pas la prison mais dans leur rédaction. Je suis bien entendu solidaire avec Rachid Nini et Saïd Laâjal. Parce que la peine de prison ferme qui leur est infligée est injuste au vu de ce qui leur est reproché. Et parce que même Monsieur Nini a a droit à ce qu’il a toujours dénié aux autres : exercer son métier de journaliste et s’exprimer librement, sans intimidations et sans procès arbitraires débouchant sur des peines infamantes.

Fortunately, not everyone has the same understanding of freedom of expression and freedom of the press as Mr Nini. The place of journalists is not in prison but in their offices. This applies to all journalists. This applies to Mr Nini. And even more to Said Laâjal. The place of Rachid Nini and Said Laâjal is not prison but in their offices. I am of course supportive of Rachid Nini and Said Laâjal, because the sentence of imprisonment imposed on them is unfair in light of what they are charged of. And because even Mr Nini has the right to what he has always denied to others: i.e. the exercise of his profession as journalist and free speech, without intimidation and arbitrary trials leading to infamous punishments.

An opinion shared by Naoufel who explains [6][Ar] that Press freedom should apply to everyone, even to Mr Nini. He writes:

هو بالنسبة لي شخص وقح .. انتهازي و متملق، يكتب ضد أي شيء إلا الملك..يحاكم الحكومة و الشعب و زملائه في الصحافة لكنه لا يتجرأ أن يقترب من مربع القصر رغم أن اصغر طفل في المملكة التي لم تعد شريفة يعرف أن أصغر قرار لا يمر دون دراية الملك..كتب ضد من كانوا زملائه[…]
الآن..هل نتضامن معه؟
لا خيار آخر
For me Nini is arrogant, opportunist and vile (sic). He writes against anything other than the king… Puts the government, the people and his colleagues on trial but does not dare going anywhere near the royal palace, although the youngest child in the Sherifian (descendant of the prophet) kingdom, which is no longer Sherifian by the way, knows that the most trivial resolution does not pass without the knowledge of the King.. He wrote against his colleagues… Now, should we support him? I think we have no choice but to.