Al Jazeera chief in Morocco faces jail time

The bureau chief of Al Jazeera in Morocco, Hassan al-Rachidi, will stand trial on July 1 for "broadcasting false information" for claiming demonstrators had died during protests in June. If convicted Rachidi faces possible jail time for simply transmitting the news.
morocco al jazeera
What does this mean for Al Jazeera in Morocco. R.R.

RABAT, June 24, 2008 (MENASSAT) – On June 7, the regional office of Al-Jazeera in Rabat started receiving dozens of complaints by fax and phone, mostly from concerned residents witnessing pitched street battles between security forces and demonstrators in the small Moroccan coastal city of Sidi Ifni.

According to sources in Sidi Ifni, a large group of unemployed youth had organized a weeklong demonstration against poverty and unemployment and against what they considered the Moroccan government's "policy of marginalization" towards their city.

The demonstrators blocked the busy Atlantic port for eight days, and Internal Affairs Minister, Shakib Bin Moussa, declared before the Moroccan Parliament that "the public authorities could no longer stand still."

"We have to take action to bring things back to normal (in Sidi Ifni), after the failure of dialogue and after all the mediators confessed there is no hope in convincing the rioters to stop this actions," he said.

In the end, Sabea al-Layl, the president of the Moroccan Center for Human Rights (MCHR) said in a press conference that the security forces were responsible for "between one and five casualties."

The MCHR described the intervention of the security forces as "barbaric," and declared that the security forces "assaulted demonstrators and bystanders, broke bones, raped, and sexually and verbally abused them."

On June 7, Hassan Rachidi, bureau chief for Al-Jazeera in Rabat, decided to broadcast the body count – five in all according to their research.

It was a move that angered Moroccan authorities.

The problems begin

According the official figures, 48 people were injured, including 28 police officers. Ultimately four demonstrators were arrested and charged with "organizing and leading a criminal cell, and setting private and public properties on fire."

The Moroccan government strongly denied any deaths in Sidi Ifni, and demanded Rachidi and Al-Jazeera issue a public apology for the "professional mistakes it made during their news coverage."

Al-Jazeera instead issued an explanation of the background to the events on that June day.

As a result, the Moroccan general prosecution ordered the judicial police to investigate Al Jazeera and its management.

A judicial summons then ordered that Rachidi be put in detention, and that he be forced to divulge his news sources. According to insiders closely associated with Rachidi, he was interrogated for four hours. He was asked questions such as, "Where and how did you get the news about the demonstrations from?" or "Who told you there were casualties in Sidi Ifni?"

Rachidi told the Moroccan authorities that Al-Jazeera's office had received scores of faxes, phone calls and statements from concerned citizens and human rights organizations on June 7 denouncing what had been happening in Sidi Ifni.

Subsequently, Rachidi and the head of the Moroccan Center for Human Rights, al-Layl, were indicted for "publishing erroneous news" and participating in the violence, based on chapter 42 of the Press Law.

Rachidi's press accreditation was revoked after he was indicted, and according to Khaled Soufiani, the lawyer defending Rachidi and Layl, the First Court in Rabat has set a trial date for July 1.

Reporters Without Borders has denounced the court decision to withdraw Rachidi's press accreditation, and in a statement from Paris called the trial a complete "exaggeration."

"There is no point in throwing accusations against al-Rachidi after the Moroccan authorities published a statement denying the [casualties] in the news," the statement read.

'An escape forward'

Based on chapter 42 of the Press Law, Rachidi and Layl face a sentence of a month to a year of prison and a fine of 1,200 to 100,000 Dirhams or roughly $165 to $14,000.

Soufiani told MENASSAT that the court has to prove Rachidi broadcast the news in order to create chaos in the country. But he added that Rachidi maintains his claim that the news coverage was properly sourced, especially when compared to the national press which published front-page news on the events in Sidi Ifni often without quoting a single source.

Al-Layli told MENASSAT that the Moroccan authorities' insistence on prosecuting him and Rachidi was "an escape forward" to distract public attention away from what really took place in the city.

The Moroccan Information Ministry has since suspended the broadcast of the Moroccan journal of Al-Jazeera for technical and judicial reasons.

Still, Rachidi released a statement affirming, "We still believe that we are dealing with a country with a great margin of freedom, and working on providing objectivity for us and our colleagues to work freely and with transparency."

Parliament has since declared the establishment of a fact-finding commission to investigate the events surrounding the demonstrations in Sidi Ifni.