Morocco press freedom on the decline, RSF study shows
By Naoufel Cherkaoui for Magharebia in Rabat – 25/10/09
Morocco's poor rank in the newly-released Reporters Without Borders (RSF) press freedom report is stirring heated debate among the country's politicians and journalists.
The 2009 Press Freedom Index, made public by the international watchdog group on Tuesday (October 20th), placed Morocco 127th of 175 countries: a 5-place drop since last year's edition of the annual survey.
Morocco has seen press freedoms retreat over the past three years, the study concluded, thanks to the strict red lines imposed by King Mohammed VI and the heavy penalties imposed on newspapers that cross them.
Communications Minister Khalid Naciri questioned the study findings. "We've made great strides in the field of press freedoms, and everyone should admit the vast scope of the press freedoms currently available," he said.
"Morocco's conscience is at ease on this issue, since we are upholding that as one of the main pillars of political gains, the minister said.
The index arrives amidst a sizzling debate about press freedoms in the kingdom, particularly given government actions against several newspapers.
"While Moroccan authorities boast that there are no reporters in their jails, there are a number of lawsuits brought against journalists that often end in enforceable court orders," the RSF report said. "We are concerned about the trials that will take place this month."
Reactions to the new index from figures outside government circles were mixed.
To Muhamad Serraj, Secretary-General of the National Moroccan Press Syndicate (SNPM), the authorities and the free press are equally responsible for the current situation. "The state is imposing an exaggerated strictness on independent journalists. The latter, however, needs to stick to professional ethics, since all prosecutions are caused by [their] violations of ethical standards," he told Magharebia.
"The problem of the freedom of the press should not be generalised, since it concerns only a few newspapers that are being prosecuted," Serraj said. "Journalists need to respect … the privacy of individuals and the things the nation reveres."
Moreover, he argued, the prosecution of media outlets for failing to show such respect does not indicate a decline in Morocco's press freedoms.
Brahim Sab'alil, Sidi Ifni office chief for the Moroccan Centre for Human Rights, disagrees with Serraj's assessment. "There is a decline in press freedoms in the country," he told Magharebia, adding that Morocco "needs to reconsider its policy toward the independent press".
Sab'alil, who was prosecuted for allegedly broadcasting erroneous information about violence in the town of Sidi Ifni in 2008, pointed out that the "whole purpose of journalism is to discuss all topics, including those that are kept under wraps."
"We cannot hope to achieve any progress if we maintain these so-called red lines," he added. A string of other cases is also troubling press freedom advocacy groups.
On October 15th, Driss Chahtane, editor of Arabic-language weekly al-Mishaal, was sentenced to one year in jail and a 10,000-dirham fine for or reporting "false information" about King Mohammed VI's health.
"We were under the impression that press freedoms were seeing some progress," Chahtane said. "The article that triggered the prosecution was not run with ill intentions … We were expecting a cruel trial, but not like that. The court did not respect the rights of the defence."
Coverage of the same purported royal health issue by independent daily Al Jarida Al Aoula resulted in charges against editor Ali Anouzla and reporter Bouchra Eddou. A Rabat court is expected to render a verdict on October 26th.
In another press freedom case, Akhbar Al Youm editor Taoufik Bouachrine and caricaturist Khalid Gueddar currently face prosecution for publishing a cartoon that "insulted" Prince Moulay Ismail and the Moroccan flag.
Nevertheless, Communications Minister Naciri asserted that journalists are "invited to protect the gains of democracy and enhance them, while continuing to respect the law".
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