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Moroccan Journalists Go on Trial for Leaking Information

Two Moroccan journalists go on trial Thursday in Casablanca on charges of leaking intelligence information warning of terrorist attacks by al-Qaida. The journalists have been charged under a section of the criminal code that carries with it a possible prison sentence of up to five years. Leslie Boctor has more for VOA from Cairo.

On July 14, an Arabic language weekly, Al-Watan Alaan, published an article based on secret government documents warning of imminent terrorist threats against Morocco. A few days later, Abderrahim Ariri, publisher of Al-Watan Alaan, and reporter Mustapha Hourmatallah were questioned by police in Casablanca and detained for allegedly revealing national defense secrets.

The head of the Middle East branch of Reporters Without Borders, Hajar Smouni, says the organization fears the journalists will be tried as civilians who obtained classified information and their role as journalists will be ignored.

"Basically our main fear is that they are not going to deal with this case as a press freedom case, but that they are going to deal with it as a violation of secrecy and classified documents and that they are not going to try the two journalists as journalists, but as people who have some kind of deal with military men," she said.

Human rights groups say press freedoms in Morocco have declined in recent years. They say independent journalists have been the targets of a series of politicized court cases, financial pressures, and have been harassed by the authorities.

The Committee on the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) reports that since 2005, at least five Moroccan journalists have been hit with hefty fines related to defamation charges and one was banned from practicing journalism altogether.

Before his death in 1999, Morocco's King Hassan II, who ruled for nearly four decades, expanded press freedoms. Consequently, says Smouni, a new generation of journalists began tackling taboos like human rights abuses and corruption. When Mohamed VI succeeded his father to the throne, he promised democratic reform, and journalists hoped for a new era of press reform, but Smouni says that has not happened.

"These new journalists have started expressing themselves," she added. "When Mohamed VI came to power, there was a great deal of hope that the situation was going to change, that there was going to be a real freedom of expression, that where wouldn't be subjects that are taboo, that everything could be discussed in the public arena, but that's not the case."

While journalists await the trial's verdict, Smouni says their solidarity in the cause of freedom of expression is growing.