Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

The Ebb and Flow of Press Freedom in Morocco

Freedom of the press in Morocco
Journalists and activists demonstrate in support of editor Ali Lmrabet in front of the parliament in Rabat, Morocco, 24 July 2015. Photo AP Photo/Paul Schemm

Freedom of the press in Morocco has witnessed an irregular evolution since King Mohammed VI came to the throne in 1999. His coronation was accompanied by a marked relaxation of press censorship, which was broadly welcomed after the iron-fisted rule of his late father Hassan II. The number of newspapers and magazines increased considerably, taboo topics were addressed and a genuine sense of freedom of expression was felt.

For the first time in the history of the country, a king’s wedding was broadcast on television, many political figures who had been living in exile were welcomed home and given the opportunity to express their opinions publicly. The reconciliation commission allowed victims of the so-called ‘Years of Lead’ to testify and many of them received compensation for the damages and suffering they had endured.

However, since the 16 May 2003 Casablanca bombings carried out by al-Qaeda extremists, this freedom has experienced an ebb and flow. Examples include the trial of journalist Ali Lmrabet in April 2005, who was accused of libel and banned from practicing journalism for ten years, the arrest of five journalists as well as the censure of many newspapers such as al-Usbu’iya al-Jadida (The Weekly), which published an interview with the then activist Nadia Yassine.

Article 41 of Moroccan Press Law highlights three red lines that Moroccan journalists must not cross: the monarchy, Islam and Western Sahara. These topics are highly sensitive and any reporting that touches on them is scrutinized, reacted to or censured and the journalists behind the reports punished.

In 2010, for example, the government organized a complete advertising boycott of Le Journal Hebdomadaire after it allegedly defamed the Foreign Minister; the state then seized its assets, when its parent company went bankrupt. Under such circumstances, self-censorship is prevalent. On occasion, the government has blocked the entry of foreign periodicals that it judges have insulted the King or the Prophet Muhammad.

Only reports that are in line with the state’s official position on the religious and political prerogatives of the king, the sacredness of Islam and “Moroccanness” of the disputed Saharan territory are allowed.

With the advent of the Arab Spring in 2011, however, the debate on press freedom has seen a grand and national resurgence, reinforced by electronic media. The Moroccan government promised to reform press laws and allow more freedom for journalists. Hence the 2011 constitution guarantees freedom of the press. However, this guarantee has not been upheld as constraints continue to be imposed on the coverage of some social and political issues. The red lines are still there and anyone who contravenes them is severely sanctioned.

Demonstration supporting the imprisoned columnist of Al-Massae, Rachid Niny
Demonstration supporting the imprisoned columnist of Al-Massae, Rachid Niny

Under the strict libel laws, those convicted can receive prison sentences: in 2011, 154 journalists or media outlets were taken to court in criminal or civil actions for libel. Walid Bahomane, aged 18, was sentenced to 18 months in jail in 2012 for posting a caricature of the king on his Facebook page.

In some cases, journalists are charged with drug dealing or other offences that carry jails terms as a means to muzzle them. Direct repression is also used: in 2011, Rachid Niny, the editor, publisher, and leading columnist of al-Massae, criticized anti-terror laws, the use of torture, and the corruption of government officials: he was sentenced to one year in prison.

In 2002, the government established the High Authority for Audiovisual Communication (HACA), which among other things monitors compliance with the laws and regulations applicable to the audiovisual sector and appoints the heads of the public radio stations and television channels; there are no private television channels in Morocco.

Compared to other countries in the region, it is relatively easy to set up and post to websites in Morocco and the internet is available to all. Furthermore, there are now fewer physical attacks on journalists than at the turn of the century, and the number of privately owned newspapers (some 20 daily newspapers and 80 weeklies) has proliferated.

This has not diminished government vigilance, however, and national security is often used as a pretext to legitimize it. Thus the government occasionally blocks particular web sites (including Google Earth) and monitors blogs. National-security laws allow web sites to be filtered if they are considered to ‘disrupt public order by intimidation, terror, or violence’.

According to an April 30, 2015 article published on news website Tel Quel, a Freedom House report ranked Morocco 145th out of 199 countries for press freedom, up two places from the year before. Although ostensibly a small improvement, it is probably due to declining press freedom in other countries. Within the MENA region, Morocco ranks sixth out of 20 countries.

In its 2015 report, the National Union of the Moroccan Press (SNPM ) also criticized the state of the press freedom and called for further reform. Yet the Union also underlined a number of positive changes, such as its consultation by the Ministry of Communication during drafting of a new press code in 2014. Additionally, no newspapers were banned in 2014 and authorities recognized 160 electronic news sites, which employ nearly 25% of print journalists. The Minister of Communication hailed this as “a very important development.”

When one reflects on the current freedom of expression in Morocco, a number of interrelated factors emerge, political climate, legal provisions and economic factors being the most salient. While substantial progress has been made toward achieving press autonomy, the government continues to foster a climate of dependence and intimidation via generous subsidies on the one hand and repeated censorship on the other.

This impairs the ability of both national and international media to report the news impartially and discourages journalists from crossing social and political red lines. This is in part due to the fact that most Moroccans are happy to have a king.