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Newspapers crippled by legal action; journalist jailed

Fifty-seven IFEX members and other rights organisations joined the Arab Network for Human Rights (ANHRI) to condemn the recent targeting of Moroccan journalists who have been hit with lawsuits, high fines and jail sentences, threatening media diversity. Orchestrated by the monarchy, newspapers have been shut down as the government ramps up its repression of independent journalism, report IFEX members.

In the past, Morocco has been a role model of press freedom for Arabic newspapers. This recent crackdown is the most serious since King Mohamed VI was crowned in 1999, says the joint action. According to IFEX members, managing director of "Al-Michaal" newspaper, Driss Chahtan, was sentenced to a year in jail on 15 October for "intentionally publishing false information" about King Mohamed VI's health in articles published in September. Two of the paper's journalists, Mostafa Hiran and Rashid Mahameed, were sentenced to three months in prison ‎and‎ a 5,000 dirham (US$655) fine each, reports the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the International Federation of Journalists and other IFEX members.

Police forced their way into the Casablanca-based offices of "Al-Michaal" and arrested Chahtan immediately after the court ruling, reports CPJ. But the other two journalists have not yet been taken to jail.

"These jail terms are part of a disturbing trend of repression of critical journalism in Morocco," said CPJ. "The government has failed to keep its repeated promise to reform restrictive press legislation and a politicised judiciary."

The IFEX joint action came just after editor Ali Anouzla and journalist Bochra Daou from the independent daily "Al-Jarida al-Oula" were ordered to appear at a Rabat court on October 21 for also publishing articles on the king's health. Anouzla was sentenced to a suspended one year in jail and Daou to a suspended three months in jail. They were also fined 10,000 and 5,000 dirhams respectively. It remains unclear why they were not jailed immediately like Chahtan.

After publishing a survey of the King's rule, two magazines,"TelQuel" and "Nichane", were confiscated in early August 2009 because they had disrespected King Mohammed VI and "violated public morality," report IFEX members.

On 28 September, the Ministry of the Interior closed down "Akhbar al-Youm" without a court order and the newspaper's editor, Taoufik Bouachrine, and cartoonist Kalid Kadar were brought to court on charges for printing a cartoon that was considered "disrespectful of a member of the royal family," according to IFEX members. That case is still pending.

This escalation of attacks on press freedom in Morocco threatens the press across the Arab region. The IFEX joint action condemns these politically motivated trials and the ongoing harassment of journalists who are carrying out their professional duties.

"These journalists are engaged in publishing information which is of huge public interest, yet the authorities have decided to hunt them down like common criminals," said the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) held a news conference on 27 October in Casablanca to lend support to Moroccan journalists facing an "avalanche of lawsuits and prosecutions." Permission to hold the news conference inside a hotel was revoked and an improvised news conference took place in the hotel lobby with many Moroccan and foreign journalists, reports RSF. On 22 October RSF and the Paris-based news website "Bakchich" organised a demonstration in front of the Moroccan embassy in Paris.

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