Qadhafi pressures Moroccan government into fining three newspapers

Three independent Moroccan newspapers had fines of over $370,000 levied against them last week for allegedly defaming Libyan leader Colonel Moammar Al-Qadhafi. The ruling has angered the Moroccan media and media advocacy organizations who are publicly calling the move a new threat to press freedoms in Morocco.
Tunis Kaddafi.jpg
Libyan leader Colonel Moamma Al-Qadhafi. R.R.

RABAT, July 6, 2009 (MENASSAT) - Three independent Moroccan newspapers Al-Jarreda Al-Oula (The First Newspaper), Al-Masa' (The Evening) and Al-Ahdath Al-Maghribiya (The Moroccan News), were each fined last week in a defamation case involving Libyan leader Colonel Moammar Al-Qadhafi and the Libyan embassy in Rabat.

The First Instance Court in Casablanca gave separate $123,500 fines for the three newspapers because of articles written over the last year that allegedly “harmed the reputation and dignity” of Qadhafi.

Morocco’s journalists union the National Press Syndicate said in a statement that the case represents a legal precedent. “It is the first time in the history of Morocco that representatives of a foreign country were allowed to file a suit against the Moroccan press according to chapter 52 of the Moroccan Press Law.”

Chapter 52 includes broad terms for sentencing journalists and publishers if they  “publicly defame state presidents and foreign ministers of foreign countries.”

Under the law, violating Chapter 52 can result in prison terms of between one to six months with potential fines of between 10,000 dirhams ($1,200) to 100,000 dirhams ($12,000).

“Chapter 52’s language is too broad and allows for punitive measures against journalists or media organizations that publish analysis, criticism...or any factual truth that the concerned - those in power - don’t appreciate,” the Syndicate added.

The articles in question

The Islamist Moroccan-Libyan Brotherhood bureau in Rabat originally filed the suit after the publication of the articles that occurred between July 2008 and January 2009.

According to sources, the Libyan embassy quickly followed suit.

The case focuses on six articles - three published in Al-Ahdath Al-Maghribiya, two in Al-Masa’, and an editorial by the editor-in-chief of Al-Jareeda Al-Oula.

The first three articles are opinion pieces, one written by journalist Al-Mokhtar Lighziwi for Al-Ahdath Al-Maghribiya criticizing Libya’s actions against Switzerland after a Geneva court indicted Qadhafi’s son Hannibal for “using violence against domestic workers” in July 2008.

The second article mocks Al-Jazeera’s praise of political leaders such as Hugo Chavez and Qadhafi, and the third article published on the forum pages of the newspaper analyzes a Moroccan writer of Libya’s infamous green book – originally written by Qadhafi and published in 1975. The book details his views on democracy and his political philosophy.

One Al-Masa article gave a thorough background of the diplomatic crisis between Venezuela and Morocco, and the other article in question was an opinion piece by Al-Masa’s publishing editor criticizing Qadhafi.

Ali Anouzla, editor-in-chief of Al-Jareeda Al-Oula, decried the court’s ruling on the matter, but Anouzla said that the Journalists Syndicate was also missing the point with their stance on the matter.

“The Syndicate’s reaction merely supports the three newspapers without denouncing the trial itself,” he said.  

Youssef Maskin, another one of the accused journalists, told MENASSAT, “I was utterly surprised when I received the police summons for investigation. And my surprise grew when I realized that the investigation concerned the Libyan president.”

Maskin, 26, now with the Moroccan paper Akhbar al-Youm, was working for Al-Masa’ when his article was published.

“The article was not an opinion piece nor was it a column, and didn’t mention Libya at all,” he said.  

According to Maskin, the article was about the diplomatic crisis that occurred between Morocco and Venezuela earlier this year which led to the closing of Morocco's embassy in Caracas. The article also included some new facts concerning the background of the crisis.

“To shed the light on all the political and military aspects of the row, I got in contact with journalist Mohammad Al-Arabi Al-Massari, former ambassador and communications minister. It was his opinion that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez sometimes acted like a child - comparing him to Libyan President Qadhafi," Maskin said.

"This was the only mention of Qadhafi, and for using Al-Massari’s quote, the Moroccan court system saw a reason to indict me and fine me more than 1 million dirham ($123,500).”

Supporting reactions

While this case angered Moroccan journalists, it also drew criticism from rights groups in the Arab world.

The Libyan League for Human rights declared noted, “No one has ever heard of a Libyan embassy filing a suit in a European or American country, as was the case here” against the three newspapers.

The Libyan group added that during Qadhafi’s business trip to Italy last month (June), the Italian newspapers ridiculed Qadhafi even more, "Calling him humiliating names that were incomparably worse than what the Moroccan papers wrote.”

Egyptian rights group the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI)  also condemned the ruling adding, “Colonel Qadhafi who has constantly made statements about alleged press and rights reforms in the last few years, forgot or failed to notice that there is no democracy without freedom of expression, and that repressing freedom of expression is a trademark of all the North African governments, especially Libya and Tunisia.”

Meanwhile, Al-Jareeda Al-Oula editor Anouzla said the ruling was “purely political” adding in an interview with the paper Al-Quds Al-Arabi, “Prime Minister Abbas al-Fassi’s government is fully responsible because it went after three of its own newspapers because Qadhafi was upset.”

"Our newspaper will appeal this case, and the fine will not prevent us from doing our job in criticizing dictatorships such as Qadhafi’s - who has been controlling Libya for 40 year," he said.