Morocco’s independent press under fire again

Increase in censure and harassment show regime’s real face

Monday 5 May 2003, by Andrew ELKIN

Through the first four years of King Mohammed VI’s reign, some thought a new era of freedom had dawned for the Moroccan press. Now it seems like a false alarm. The censure and harassment of several journalists over the past few months has outside observers seeing what others have been saying all along. This ’cool’ new regime is just as restrictive as the last, if not more.

"Since the end of the Hassan II era I am like Saint Bernard," said Ali Lmrabet, publisher of the French and Arabic language satirical weeklies, Demain magazine and Doumane. "I only believe what I see, and I don’t see a thing."

Lmrabet is Morocco’s most persecuted journalist, the target of regular attacks for well over three years. This campaign against Lmrabet and his relaunched Demain magazine increased steadily over the past six months until finally, on May 2, he found himself producing what may be the final editions of his two weeklies. That morning he received a phone call from the company that prints his two papers. They told him they were no longer able to do the job because they had been charged with violations of the press code for stories that appeared in Lmrabet’s papers.

It is a surprising turn since the Moroccan press code clearly states that the printer can only be held responsible if the publisher and then the author of an offending article are not available for prosecution. Lmrabet goes to court on May 7 to face charges of offending the king and offending the monarchist regime and attacking the territorial integrity of Morocco-the most severe charges a journalist can face.

"It shows there is a political will to shut the papers down, said Virginie Locussol of Reporters Without Borders, who spent the week of April 21 in Morocco on a fact-finding mission. "They have no legal means to do it so they resort to these tactics."

The Paris-based group came to Morocco ahead of their report on press freedom around the world, to coincide with World Press Freedom Day, May 3. A separate report for Morocco was published on May 5.

On March 30, Moroccan state television, TVM, said they could no longer transmit reports by Al Jazeera’s Morocco correspondent Iqbal Ilhami to her network’s headquarters in Qatar. Two of her recent reports included "false information," they claimed. Ilhami has yet to find a new transmitter for her reports.

More recently, Stephen Smith, a reporter for the French daily Le Monde, was charged with offending the image of a prince royal. It is unclear whether this contributed to the aborted April 14 launch of a Moroccan edition of Le Monde. Observers say the newspaper had a provisional green light to begin printing in Morocco, but permission in form of a signed document never materialized.

Despite the increase in incidents of censure and harassment of Moroccan journalists, the regime’s track record in this area dates back more than two years. In December 2000, 18 months into Mohamed VI’s reign, Morocco’s three most daring independent newspapers, Demain, Le Journal and Al-Sahiffa were banned for publishing a letter alleging that the prime minister was behind a 1972 plot to assassinate the king. A steady rate of interrogations, travel bans and even torture of journalists in the past two years indicates there never was an improvement in press freedoms.

The real change came in the dynamic of the Moroccan press at the time. "The traditional political parties were no longer fulfilling the role of opposition, so these young publications became the opposition," said Locussol. "In the process, they demystified the political parties to a degree."

The independents are not only under attack from the regime but from their peers in the partisan press; some 40 publications are run by political parties. Last November, while Lmrabet was being sentenced to four months in prison for a story he ran about the rumoured sale of a royal palace, he was defamed in a back-page column of a daily for an entire month. In February, journalists from another daily filed 40 identical complaints against Lmrabet.

The shift in the independent press has not been ignored by Morocco’s small but loyal readership. The reincarnated Journal Hebdomadaire is the most popular weekly newspaper, with sales of roughly 20,000. The newcomer TelQuel has sales of 10,000 a week on a print run of just 12,000. Demain magazine and Doumane each sell 17,000 copies a week and have existed on sales alone since a government campaign scared away all advertisers two years ago.

Although Lmrabet’s game looks to be up, he has helped to prove that Moroccan readers are ready for something different. When he realized his papers could live off readers alone, Lmrabet said, "I told the King’s spokesman, you have only two choices. You can kill me, or you can kill all my readers."

Andrew Elkin is an Alternatives media intern in Rabat, Morocco

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