Morocco's daily Al-Massae faces closure after court levies $700 thousand fine

The Moroccan newspaper Al-Massae faces closure if an appeals court decision ordering it to pay some $700 thousand in fines is upheld. The case revolves around a story that Al-Massae published about an alleged gay marriage in November 2007. It is the largest publishing fine in Morocco's history.
caricature nini
A caricature depicts a gay marriage with government employees playing dumb. Al-Massae has accused government lawyers of being at the alleged gay wedding. © aljamaa1.unblog

RABAT, November 10, 2008 (MENASSAT) - The Court of Appeals in Rabat ruled to uphold the first court decision against Morocco's Al-Massae newspaper after its director, Rashid Nini, and newspaper staff were accused of "defaming and insulting" four deputies from the government's prosecution office.

The case goes back to a November 2007 article published in Al-Massae about an alleged gay marriage that took place in Al-Qasr Al-Kabir, a city north of Rabat.

Riots engulfed the city after the article was published, in which Al-Massae also claimed that one of the guests was a deputy General Prosecutor – a claim Al-Massae later corrected.

The original court decision levied a fine of 6 million Dirhams (about $700,000 dollars). This fine is considered the largest publishing fine in Moroccan history. 

On October 30, the appeals court upheld the March 25 decision against Nini for "public insult and defamation,” which included a fine of $14,000 to be paid to the Public Treasury.

Nini faced four separate complaints filed by four of the general prosecutor's deputies before the original court decision was handed down.

(Note: a report published on October 28 by Reporters Without Borders placed Morocco in 122nd place as a country on the freedom of speech scale.)


MENASSAT tried several times to get in contact with Al-Massae's director, Rashid Nini, with no success.

In the November 7 edition of his daily column, titled Shouf tshouf (see, you see), Nini showed his anxiety about the potential closure of Al-Massae. He wrote, "If you wake up in the morning and don't see us standing by your side, excuse us. If you go on the streets the next day to buy your favorite newspaper and don't find it, you will at least understand the reason behind this absence which will you consider as sudden."

He continued, "How can any company, no matter how powerful it is, stay standing after being blackmailed with a $700,000 fine? How can it face the storm?"

Nini has said publicly that he thinks the court of appeals decision is a conspiracy to shut down Al-Massae, and he expressed his surprise that the paper's former distributor, Spress Distribution Company, refused to pay back some 5 million Dirhams it owed Nini one week prior the court ruling.

According to Nini, the distribution company did that in "response to the competing distribution company we established."

MENASSAT met with the representatives of three concerned parties in this affair, to cover all the legal points of view, in what is a landmark case for free expression in Morocco.

'Prior intent to muzzle al-Massae

Lawyer and publishing trials researcher,Abdul Aziz Nowaydi has been closely following the trial. He told MENASSAT he wasn't surprised by the decision.

MENASSAT: Being a lawyer and a researcherinto  publishing trials in Morocco, how did you receive the appeal decision against al-Massae?

: Frankly, I wasn't surprised. What surprised me is the attempt to speed up the execution of the decision, by seizing the company's properties, and the properties and the bank account of the publication manager/director, Rashid Nini.

This shows a prior intent to muzzle the newspaper. Although I have some reservations concerning the views of Nini in his articles and some of his analysis that might not be accurate sometimes, I considered al-Massae to be a respectful newspaper with good and accurate analysis, including the daily columns of Nini.

So, the court decision is harsh in my opinion. Although the ruling was leveled at Rashid Nini, the reality is that it also included the publishing company's properties.

MENASSAT: Do you think that this decision affects the future of journalism in Morocco?

"If they go through with this, the impact will be felt in many sectors. But it won't stop the free and independent press which will soon be back on its feet. But this ruling will definitely have a seriously negative effect on Morocco's reputation."

MENASSAT: Under these circumstances, how can a journalist avoid the mistakes that could lead him to court?

"Every journalist should be driven by professionalism. He has to fact-check his information, with good faith. These are the values of our profession.

"But mistakes are sometimes inevitable. Hence, we face two options: the journalist will stand before a government respecting the law, and the mistake will be treated logically. Or he will be facing an unlawful state which will consider the mistake lethal, and this scenario is indefensible and harms the government."

MENASSAT: Al-Massae has announced it will appeal to the Higher Legislative Council. Do you expect a revision of the ruling?

ABDUL AZIZ NOWAYDI: "This matter depends on the independence of the judicial system. If it is so, it will confirm the indictment and look into the fine, which is heavy, especially given that the newspaper published an apology, which reflects its good will."
'An insult to human dignity

Prosecution lawyer Mohamad Zayyan, a leading human rights activist, says Al-Massae went too far and falsified facts.

MENASSAT: Many activists consider that the ruling against Rashid Nini and Al-Massae is harsh and sets an historical precedent of the Moroccan judiciary system, aiming to hush the press. Do you agree with this view?

"There are two mistakes here: this decision is not a first in the history of Morocco. Le Journal faced a fine of 3 million dirham ($581 thousand), 1.5 million for each of the plaintiffs.

"In the case of Al-Massae, there are many plaintiffs. This is not the fault of the court, but of the accused. This means that Le Journal paid a much higher fine than Al-Massae.

"The second mistake is that the activists should defend human rights. The human rights world is integrated and comprehensive, aiming to strengthen human dignity, through freedom of speech and free press among others.

"Protecting human dignity is protecting people's personal lives.

"Which dignity are we talking about, if the dignity of a man is jeopardized while he is at home, and his wife or children suspect he is gay?"

MENASSAT: Al-Massae published an apology.

: "No. They refused to present an apology formally. I challenge anyone to bring me an apology from Al-Massae that they published erroneous news considering the presence of these deputies at the wedding.

"What Al-Massae published was not an apology."

MENASSAT: From a legal point-of-view, where did the newspaper go wrong?

"The newspaper published that one of the General Prosecutor's deputies was there as a gay man among the security forces on the wedding register, which is completely wrong.

"This is a lie and defamation because there was no list, which means that what Al-Massae published was a fabricated news item aiming for illegal gains – publishing a sensational story that would raise the newspapers sales.

"I don't think money is more important than human dignity."

'Al-Massae will not be stopped'

Interview with Abdullatif Wehbe, member of the Al-Massae defense committee.

MENASSAT: Rashid Nini wrote in a recent column that if Al-Massae closes, the people would know the reason why. Will the paper close because of the court of appeals ruling?

We can assure you that Al-Massae will continue, along with the free press in Morocco. We are facing a problem with the independence of the judicial system. And despite seizing Nini's and the company's properties, Al-Massae will continue publishing."

MENASSAT: That seems optimistic. So how do you explain the court of appeals upholding the first court decision against Al-Massae?

"There have been legal violations all from the beginning – from the first court decision to the appeal courts – there are legal incongruities! The battle will continue, and we will take all the necessary steps to stop this."

MENASSAT: But your actions aside, do you really expect the Higher Council to be fair?

The system is looking for democracy – the Moroccan system is suffering under the weight of its false pretense. The government talks a lot of hot air. 

"So, we will witness more court decisions against press freedom and free expression, which threatens everyone.

"We expect the Higher Council to be fair in the revision of the ruling."

Also read:


When hate speech sells newspapers
Posted on 21/02/2008 - 16:26
In Morocco, the battle between liberal and traditional values is being fought by proxy of the media. Said Essoulami, director of the Center for Media Freedom, discusses the Ksar el Kebir affair, in which the daily newspaper Al Massae stands accused of inciting mob violence over an alleged gay marriage ceremony. morocco.jpg