The Moroccan authorities' use of an anti-terrorism law to prosecute and imprison journalists is a serious blow to freedom of expression and editorial independence, Amnesty International said today, as it highlighted the cases of two men recently targeted under the law.
Yesterday, authorities further postponed today's hearing of journalist Ali Anouzla, who risks up to 20 years' imprisonment for reporting on a video by the armed group al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Meanwhile another Moroccan journalist, Mustapha El Hasnaoui is on his fifth day of hunger strike in protest at his ongoing three-year prison term on terrorism charges for alleged contact with individuals fighting government forces in Syria.
"Using anti-terrorism legislation as a pretext to punish journalists for their reporting is dealing a serious blow to freedom of expression in Morocco," said Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director at Amnesty International.
The postponement of Ali Anouzla's 20 May hearing with the investigating judge at the Salé annex of the Rabat Court of Appeals, just north of the capital Rabat, is the latest twist in a series of delays since authorities began investigating him last year.
"The Moroccan authorities must end their charade of a trial against Ali Anouzla and drop all terrorism charges against him. In the case of journalist Mustapha El Hasnaoui, we urge them to comply with the recommendation of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, who have called for his immediate and unconditional release, and for him to be awarded adequate compensation for the 10 months he has already spent in detention," said Philip Luther.
Ali Anouzla was brought to trial in September 2013 after the news website he founded, Lakome.com, criticized a video by AQIM as "propaganda". Amnesty International fears his prosecution came as punishment for his editorial independence and criticism of the authorities.
During his more than one month in detention following his arrest last September, the organization considered him a prisoner of conscience. He has since been released on bail but continues to be investigated. Meanwhile Lakome.com remains censored by the authorities.
Moroccan authorities have also recently obstructed the registration of Freedom Now, a new press freedoms NGO created by Moroccan human rights defenders and journalists, including Ali Anouzla. Several other human rights groups in Morocco and Western Sahara have faced similar blocks from local authorities, in breach of national laws and Morocco's international human rights obligations.
Imprisoned journalist on hunger strike
Another journalist, Mustapha El Hasnaoui, is currently on hunger strike in Kenitra prison, 50km north of Rabat, where he is serving a three-year prison term under Morocco's anti-terrorism law.
Although he was accused of no specific violent act, he was convicted in July 2013 for allegedly failing to denounce individuals suspected of terrorism in Syria, and membership in a terrorist group with these individuals. He was convicted following an unfair trial where the only evidence against him was a police interrogation report which he signed without reading its contents, and which he has since contested in court.
Mustapha El Hasnaoui insists that he only interacted with individuals fighting government forces in Syria in his capacity as a journalist, and that the charges against him were fabricated in retaliation for refusing repeated offers of recruitment by Morocco's intelligence services. In his writing he has vehemently criticized human rights violations in the context of the Moroccan authorities' "counter-terrorism" efforts and has repeatedly called for independent investigations into bombings in Morocco since 2003.
"In 2011, Moroccans were promised a new Press Code that removes the possibility of prison sentences for journalists - they're still waiting. Meanwhile, critical voices continue to be silenced," said Philip Luther.
Journalists continue to face prison sentences under 20 different articles of Morocco's current Press Code, including for publications deemed to undermine the monarchy or the country's territorial integrity, or to denigrate Islam. Journalists face similar sanctions for criticism of public officials and national symbols under Morocco's Penal Code. In addition, anti-terrorism legislation adopted in 2003 violates freedom of information and expression, criminalizing vaguely defined advocacy, assistance and incitement to terrorism as offences even if they do not involve an actual risk of violent action.
"These laws must be reformed if the Moroccan authorities are serious about respecting human rights," said Philip Luther.