- Morocco's leading independent weekly newspaper, 'Le Journal Hebdomadaire', may face closure after a court has seized all its earnings. The confiscation comes after a four-year-old libel action brought by Moroccan Foreign Minister Mohammed Benaïssa and is believed to "threaten the survival" of one of Morocco's few remaining independent voices.
The weekly newspaper was told on 18 September that its earnings and those of 'Assahifa,' an Arabic-language weekly belonging to the same group, are to be seized as a result of a libel action brought by Foreign Minister Benaïssa in 2001. Mr Benaïssa obtained a summary judgment ordering payment of 700,000 dirhams (euro 63,000) in damages, although the case is pending before the Supreme Court.
In the Benaïssa libel case, the newspaper's editor and Aboubakr Jamaï, the paper's managing editor, were originally fined 2 million dirhams in February 2001 and were given a suspended prison sentenced. The fine was reduced on appeal to 700,000 dirhams. It has since been pending in superior courts.
Reached by telephone, 'Journal Hebdomadaire' editor Ali Amar recalled that Moroccan authorities had originally banned his newspaper in December 2000, when it was called 'Le Journal'. It however had reappeared three months later under its present name, 'Le Journal Hebdomadaire'.
Since then, "the authorities have no longer dared attack us frontally," the editor told the Paris-based media watchdog group Reporters sans Frontières (RSF). "Instead, they now always proceed in the same way."
- First, a smear campaign orchestrated by the regime's security agents in certain newspapers, Mr Amar went on explaining. "Then the real problems started: an exhaustive tax review or an advertising boycott. This time the authorities decided to revive a four-year-old libel suit in order to strangle us financially."
Mr Amar said "the smear campaign" against him and the 'Journal Hebdomadaire' began after it published an interview with Hicham Mandari at the end of July 2003. Mr Mandari was a Moroccan citizen murdered in Spain in August who had access to the palace under the late King Hassan II and who claimed to know state secrets.
The interview with Mr Mandari was further published in a special issue entitled "Five years without him [King Hassan II]," giving a critical assessment of the first five years of King Mohammed VI's reign, which also irked Rabat authorities. Critical reporting regarding Morocco's royal house remains a taboo in the Kingdom.
RSF today in a statement today condemned a court order against 'Le Journal Hebdomadaire', saying it was "clearly designed to put one of Morocco's leading independent weeklies out of business." The French group further said it was "very concerned" that the threat to the journal's survival had come at moment when the monarchy is very upset by its critical reporting and its revelations about Mr Mandari.
The media watchdogs are generally concerned regarding press freedom in the country. "The only solution that would respect press freedom and at the same time show that Morocco's judges are independent would be for the court of cassation to point out the procedural shortcomings in the appeal court ruling and thereby overturn the confiscation order that could put the newspaper out of business," the RSF statement said.
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