- As Ali Lmrabet, editor of the weekly newspapers 'Demain' and 'Doumane', last week was sentenced to a jail term of four years for allegedly insulting the King, an avalanche of protests have reached the Moroccan government. Morocco seems on the road to become one of the region's most repressive regimes, critics agree.
Mr Lmrabet's trial on charges of "insulting the person of the King", "offence against territorial integrity" and "offence against the monarchy" began on 13 May. He was prosecuted for articles and cartoons about the annual allowance that parliament grants the royal family - detailed in a finance ministry document distributed to parliamentarians - the history of slavery, a photomontage of Moroccan political personalities, and an interview with a Moroccan republican who advocated self-determination for Western Sahara.
The prominent editor was jailed on Wednesday, immediately after a court convicted him of "insulting the King," sentenced him to four years in prison and a fine of 20,000 dirhams (about 2,000 euros) and banned his two weeklies, 'Demain Magazine' and 'Doumane'. Mr Lmrabet has been on hunger strike since 6 May.
The draconic sentence immediately provoked strong words of protest from all organisations and groups dedicated to press freedom worldwide. The Paris-based group Reporters sans Frontičres (RSF) on Wednesday "voiced dismay" over the sentence and jailing of Mr Lmrabet.
- We are dismayed and horrified by this verdict, RSF Secretary-General Robert Ménard said in a statement, calling for Mr Lmrabet's immediate and unconditional release. "The Moroccan justice system has once again proved its incapacity to act with independence," Mr Ménard added. "Is Ali Lmrabet a dangerous criminal who must be imprisoned on the spot ?" he asked. Mr Ménard said the four-year jail sentence posed "a clear threat to the rest of the independent press."
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) yesterday condemned the "draconian jail term" for Mr Lmrabet as a "massive attack on press freedom" in what i called "one of the Arab world's most open societies."
- This sentence is disproportionate and draconian, said Aidan White, General-Secretary of the IFJ. "It reveals how fragile the process of building press freedom has become. This editor has done no more than produce the sort of hard-hitting satire that is commonplace in the democratic world." The IFJ is calling for the sentence to be immediately reviewed.
The journalist federation is considering to organise a worldwide campaign to highlight the Lmrabet case. "This sentence must not be allowed to stand," says the IFJ. "The independent press and independent journalists must be free to work. That is the supreme test of the quality of Moroccan democracy," the federation concluded.
Also the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) yesterday expressed "serious concern" over sentencing to jail of Mr Lmrabet. In an open letter to His Majesty King, Mohammad VI, protested the sentence. "We are concerned that the imprisonment of Mr Lmrabet constitutes a serious deterioration of press freedom in Morocco," WAN President Seok Hyun Hong writes in the letter.
The Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) and International PEN forcefully yesterday joined the protest, saying the group was "deeply dismayed". "The harassment, pressing of charges and subsequent prison sentence imposed on Ali Lmrabet expose the Moroccan authorities' high-handed attitude towards freedom of expression," WiPC stated. International PEN unreservedly called upon those same authorities "to release Ali Lmrabet immediately and unconditionally."
The group further urged all its members to send appeals to King Mohammed VI and Prime Minister Youssoufi, "calling for the quashing of Ali Lmrabet's sentence and his immediate release" and "urging the authorities to safeguard the right of all Moroccans to a free press and to be able to express themselves without fear of reprisals."
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also forcefully protested Mr Lmrabet's imprisonment in an open letter to the Moroccan King. The committee had observed a series of attacks on the freedom of the press in Morocco lately, and urges the King to guarantee basic rights.
Lmrabet's conviction had come "on the heels of several other troubling incidents involving independent journalists," CPJ recalled. On 11 April, unidentified assailants had beaten Mohamed Benouna, a reporter for 'Douman', in the city of Settat, about 100 kilometres south of Casablanca, after he reported that the local Governor had granted one of the King's advisers a concession to sell alcohol in the region.
On 13 March, journalist Maria Mokrim, a reporter for the weekly 'Al-Ayam', had received anonymous threatening phone calls and was physically assaulted after she wrote an article describing how the Moroccan Secret Service functions.
- These incidents, combined with today's sentence against Lmrabet, are extremely troubling, CPJ Executive Director Ann K. Cooper writes. "Imprisoning journalists simply for reporting on matters of public interest, or for publishing satirical material, is a grave violation of internationally accepted standards of free expression. Lmrabet's imprisonment is certain to have a chilling effect on other independent journalists working in Morocco," she adds.
CPJ called on his Majesty "to do everything within your power to ensure that Lmrabet is released immediately, that all charges against him are dropped, and that his publications are reopened. We also urge you to ensure that those who attacked journalists Benouna and Mokrim are arrested and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law so that the Moroccan media can practice their profession freely, without fear of reprisal."
Meanwhile, Mr Lmrabet is reported to continue his hunger strike, protesting the case against him. Ahmad Bejelloun, Mr Lmrabet's lawyer, has also informed that they planned to appeal Rabat court's decision to imprison his client.
Mr Lmrabet was also imprisoned for four months last year after being found guilty on 21 November 2001 of "distribution of false information undermining or likely to undermine public order". In December 2000, 'Demain' was banned along with other publications on the grounds that they had "threatened the stability of the state". 'Demain' was given permission to publish again a month later under the name 'Demain Magazine'.
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