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Photographer questioned by police over photograph of demonstration; government council tries to block publication of human rights interviews

(RSF/IFEX) - What is left of press freedom in Morocco? The first six months of 2008 have been marked by an avalanche of trials and repressive judicial and administrative decisions. At the same time, promises by Prime Minister Abbas El Fassi's government to reform the press law have still not materialised. No bill has yet been submitted to the chamber of deputies.

"We are very worried by the deterioration in the press freedom situation in Morocco," Reporters Without Borders said. "The mistrust that journalists feel towards the government has been reinforced by an increase in the number of prosecutions brought against them and the many other obstacles they have to face."

Journalists were stunned when reporter Mostapha Hurmatallah of the weekly "Al Watan Al An" was returned to Casablanca's Okacha prison on 19 February to finish the seven-month sentence he was given in 2007 for publishing the content of an intelligence agency memo. It made them aware of the danger they were all in.

Moroccan journalists have always had to worry about their safety. They now know they can go to prison if what they report challenges the official version. Hurmatallah's editor, Abderrahim Ariri, got a suspended prison sentence but the eight army officers who allegedly leaked information to Hurmatallah were given long jail terms that have been seen as a warning to all who cooperate with the media.

Before being sent back to prison, Hurmatallah told Reporters Without Borders that his first spell of 56 days behind bars had left him with a "bitter taste" although conditions in prison had been relatively acceptable. "When I set about becoming a journalist, I never imagine that I might end up in prison because of what I wrote. This has been a brutal experience. I was very moved by all the campaigning on my behalf in Morocco and abroad, but prison is prison."

There was no response to the request for a pardon that his family sent to King Mohammed and now he is due to be freed in July on completion of his sentence. However, on 18 March, the King did pardon blogger Fouad Mourtada, who had been sentenced to three years in prison for creating a spoof entry on the social networking website Facebook in the name of the king's brother - a case which, despite the pardon, has traumatised the Moroccan blogosphere.

The courts rarely rule in favour of journalists, who increasingly doubt the judicial system's independence. In March, the editor of the Arabic-language daily "Al-Massae", Rachid Nini, was sentenced to pay six million dirhams (approx. 550,000 euros) in damages and a fine of 120,000 dirhams (approx. 11,000 euros) in a lawsuit brought by four judges. No court had ever ordered such a high damages award before. The case is due to be heard by an appeal court soon.

"Al-Massae" photographer Karim Selmaoui was questioned by members of the national department of criminal investigation in Casablanca for more than two hours on 16 June about a photo in the newspaper's 28 May issue of a woman being manhandled by police during a demonstration. The police superintendent who appeared in the photo received threats after it was published.

Selmaoui told Reporters Without Borders he was interrogated about the circumstances in which he took the photo and how it came to be published in the foreign press. He was also questioned at length about his former work relationship with the French weekly "Le Journal", especially as regards to the photos it used for its stories about the Moroccan government. "One can live without the press, but one cannot live without being safe," one of the policemen told him.

Just as the trial of "Al Watan Al An"'s editor and reporter caused a stir in 2007, the high-profile trial of Hassan Rachidi, Rabat bureau chief of the Qatar-based satellite TV station Al-Jazeera will start in July. He was charged him with "publishing false information" on 13 June because, according to the government, he deliberately omitted any reference to a government denial about the toll of dead and wounded in recent clashes in the southern city of Sidi Ifni.

The authorities seem to have no doubt about his guilt, as his press accreditation was withdrawn immediately after the charges were announced. In May, the government withdrew Al-Jazeera's licence to broadcast directly by satellite from Morocco. This meant that its staff had to stop producing a daily news programme about the Maghreb countries which it had been broadcasting live from its Rabat studio. Rachidi will face a possible one-year prison sentence when his trial starts on 1 July.

Another current case concerns a request by Ahmed Herzenni, the president of the Consultative Council for Human Rights (CCDH), for a summary ruling to stop the Arabic-language daily "Al Jarida Al Oula" from continuing the series of previously unpublished interviews it began on 9 June. Senior Moroccan officials gave the interviews to Fairness and Reconciliation (IER), an entity that was dissolved in 2007 and replaced by the CCDH, and Herzenni insists they are confidential government documents. He is to argue his case in court on 18 June.

The trial of Ahmed Reda Benchemsi, the publisher of the weeklies "Tel Quel" and "Nichane", is also due to resume in Casablanca on 3 September. He faces up to five years in prison for "disrespect for the king" under article 41 of the press law.

When a Reporters Without Borders delegation met with government spokesman and communications minister Khalid Naciri on 30 April in Rabat, he expressed a desire to introduce a new press law that would be "advanced" and "based on consensus." According to Naciri, the proposed new law is still being discussed.

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