- In Morocco, the press is mostly under strict government control. Few critical words ever reach out to the population. 'TelQuel' has developed into the Kingdom's most independent weekly newspaper, putting it under a siege of libel cases from the ruling elite. "The aim is no longer to educate us, but simply to bring us down," a senior staff member says.
Ali Lmrabet earlier had felt the consequences of being Morocco's most outspoken editor. An article on the King's properties brought him to jail and saw the banning and forced closure of his two satiric weeklies, 'Demain Magazine' and 'Douman'. He is sentenced to not perform his profession as a journalist during ten years and remains banned from publishing.
With Mr Lmrabet silenced, the outspoken weekly 'TelQuel' is getting more attention from Morocco's ruling elite. During the last months, the newspaper has been drowned in libel cases and been sentenced to pay a total of 1,960,000 dirhams (euro 180,000) in damages and fines only since August.
The last sentence was produced on 24 October, following a report in May that said Touria Bouabid, the President of a child relief organisation, had been summoned by the police for questioning about embezzlement within her NGO. The information came from police sources and was reported in three other newspapers in addition to 'TelQuel'.
All four newspapers published retractions after the information turned out to be false, but Ms Bouabid brought successful libel actions against all of them, although the sentences for the others were more lenient.
In an earlier case, 'TelQuel' managing editor Ahmed Reda Benchemsi and news editor Karim Boukhari were sentenced by a Casablanca court on 15 August to pay damages of 1 million dirhams (euro 90,000) and a fine of 25,000 dirhams (euro 2,250) for libelling a parliamentarian. The two editors also received two-month suspended prison sentences.
The suit was prompted by an article entitled "A Brunette's Secret" in which editor Boukhari described the career of a woman identified only by the pseudonym Asmaa, who began as a "cheïkha" (popular dancer), and ended up becoming a legislator. The suit was brought by parliamentarian Halima Assali, who assumed the story referred to her although no names were mentioned in the article.
The frequency of libel cases and other attacks on the newspaper's economy indicate that the government is trying to silence this most outspoken Moroccan media. A senior member of TelQuel's staff this weekend told the French group Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) "The aim is no longer to educate us, but simply to bring us down."
Moroccans are however increasingly tired of the authorities' censorship as a growing number is used to free reporting from foreign media. In an unprecedented move, around 300 people gathered in a protest in Casablanca on Tuesday in a show of support for the independent weekly.
The participants of the demonstration included members of neighbourhood and youth groups as well as representatives of the Committee for Freedom of Expression and the Press, a new entity that brings together the National Union of the Moroccan Press, member of left-wing parties and human rights groups, the Truth and Justice Forum and a civil society group called ATTAC Maroc.
Reached by phone, 'TelQuel' editor Ahmed Benchemsi yesterday told RSF he was very moved by the show of support and said he saw it as "a sign that 'TelQuel' has people's trust." This is one of very few pro-democracy demonstrations recorded in Morocco and could mean the beginning of a broader popular demand for freedom of expression in the authoritarian Kingdom.
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