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Journalists on trial for criticising Libyan leader

Five Moroccan journalists are facing trial in Casablanca for "publicly harming" Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and "hurting his dignity", report the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

The Libyan embassy in Rabat submitted a complaint to the public prosecutor against three Moroccan papers - "Al-Masaa", "Al-Garida Al-Oula" and "Moroccan Events" - accusing them of publishing articles criticising Qaddafi or referring to him in a way which the Libyan embassy claims is unacceptable.

Under Morocco's press law, the journalists face up to one year in jail and fines of up to 100,000 Dirhams (US$12,090) if convicted on the defamation charges.

"It seems that President Qaddafi, after overthrowing press freedom in Libya, has started to focus his attention and experience on prosecuting Arab journalists outside his country. We must stand by these journalists, in order to preserve what is left of press freedom in the Arab world," said ANHRI.

The case stems from articles published by the three independent dailies in 2008 and early 2009. In an opinion piece headlined "We and the Arab Maghreb", Ali Anouzla, editor of the daily "Al-Jarida Al-Oula", criticised Qaddafi, describing how he seized power following a military coup 40 years ago.

Editor Mohamed Brini and reporter Mokhtar al-Ghizeawy, both from the daily "Al-Ahdath Al-Magrebia" are facing charges for three articles, including a story on the arrest of the leader's youngest son and daughter-in-law in Geneva for allegedly assaulting a Moroccan servant and Tunisian maid, reports CPJ.

"We only published critical stories. Moroccan journalists struggled over the past decades to widen the margin of press freedom. It is unacceptable to see the Moroccan authorities yield to external pressure and influence and take us to court," Brini told CPJ, which sent a monitor to court on 18 May.

Rachid Niny, editor of "Al-Massae", and Younes Meskini, a former reporter for the paper, face charges for quoting former minister of communication, Larbi Messari, as saying that "the positions taken by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez are similar to the Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi's childish positions," Meskini, the author, told CPJ.

According to ANHRI, Qaddafi has previously pursued legal action against Arabic journalists through his embassies abroad. He has gone after the Algerian newspaper "Al-Shorouq", as well as the Egyptian papers "Sawt el-Omma" and "Al-Doustour" and the Saudi newspaper "Al-Watan".

In May 2007, CPJ concluded that Morocco was one of the world's worst backsliders on press freedom. That year, high-ranking Moroccan officials told a CPJ delegation that they were reforming the press law to ease the most onerous restrictions. But to date, little progress has been made toward bringing the law in line with international standards for free expression. Journalists continue to be judicially harassed, silenced and assaulted, says CPJ.

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