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Press freedom suffers new threats

New forms of press freedom violations are troubling Morocco, even as the media have won some advances in the decade of King Mohammed VI's rule, say the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

According to ANHRI, court hearings began for a journalist and NGO leader charged with insulting god in Morocco's first 'hesba' case. Hesba cases involve alleged insults to God, which are deemed harmful to Islamic society. Such charges have been used against critics of the government in Egypt, and ANHRI notes that they are now "creeping into Morocco."

A group representing the royal family filed a hesba suit against Edris Shehtan, editor of "Al Michaal" weekly, and Mustafa Idary, the manager of a Khneifera-based human rights organisation.

The case, which has also been reported by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), stems from an interview published in "Al Michaal" in which Idary connected two of King Mohammed VI's aunts to political corruption and criminality.

In what ANHRI considers an "example of the hostile policy against independent press in Morocco," the relatives' representatives asked the newspaper to pay a fine of one million Moroccan dirhams (approx US$125,000) and said Shehtan should be barred from working as a journalist for 10 years.

While much less restrictive than his father Hassan, King Mohammed has become more heavy handed over the course of his 10 years as ruler, says RSF, as it marked the 23 July anniversary of the King's ascension to the throne.

RSF reveals that police raids and assaults are common, especially when journalists have raised the ire of the royal family, and the government has recalled issues of two separate magazines in the past year. Also, in the past four years, the number of lawsuits against newspaper editors has been steadily rising, and the exorbitant fines these lawsuits incur could have a silencing effect on the media.

RSF recognises, however, that journalists in Morocco operate much more freely than they did 10 years ago. While Morocco's press code still carries jail terms and archaic laws, prison sentences for press law violations are now rare. The number of newspapers has grown and broadcasting laws have been relaxed to make way for the introduction of several independent radio and TV stations, although out of the 23 applicants seeking licenses for TV and radio stations, only four radio stations have been approved this year.

"While more liberal than his father Hassan, King Mohammed has given contradictory signals as to whether he really wants to democratise the regime and the country," RSF says. "A thorough reform of the press code would clearly be a positive step in this direction."

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  • Editor, NGO manager charged with "insult to God"

    An editor and a human rights organization manager were charged with "hesba" for publishing an article about a scandal involving the king's aunts.

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