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A pattern of punitive court judgements appears designed to pressure or financially cripple the country's independent press, a delegation from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has found.

Over the past two years, CPJ reports that Moroccan courts have levied stiff penalties against independent news organisations, which has led to two of the country's most outspoken journalists effectively being banished from their profession, pressuring a third to quit journalism, and effectively silencing would-be critics.

In one case, the independent newsweekly "Le Journal Hebdomadaire" was sued by Claude Moniquet, head of the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center, for its critique questioning his think tank's report on Western Sahara, which was annexed by Morocco three decades ago. Last April, Moniquet was awarded a record 3 million Dirhams (US$359,700) in damages. The publisher of "Hebdomadaire", Aboubakr Jamaï, stepped down earlier this year to prevent authorities from seizing the magazine's assets.

"The record shows that Moroccan courts are influenced by the government," says CPJ's Joel Campagna, who led the recent nine-day mission to Casablanca and Rabat. "It's clear to us that authorities are putting economic pressure on critical newspapers by exacting exorbitant civil damages in the courts."

Moroccan officials and members of the press are also discussing amendments to the country's press law that would keep in place tough criminal penalties for violating vaguely-worded bans against offending the monarchy, Islam and state institutions, as well as critical coverage of Western Sahara, CPJ found.

The most recent version of the draft law also stipulates new restrictions on the media, including the creation of a National Press Council whose appointed members would have sweeping powers to ban journalists from the profession and fine those who violated a prospective ethics code.

Moroccan officials, journalists and publishers involved in the draft law told CPJ that the drafting of the amendments continues and is open to improvement.

To read CPJ's report on the mission (from 29 March to 6 April), see:
(17 April 2007)

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