News / Middle East

The Case of Rachid Nini - A Test of Press Freedom in Morocco

Rachid Nini being escorted into the courtroom in Morocco
Rachid Nini being escorted into the courtroom in Morocco
Cecily Hilleary

A leading Moroccan rights lawyer was recently in Washington to bring U.S. attention to the case of a controversial newspaper publisher now serving a one year jail sentence apparently for exposing alleged government corruption and repression. The case coincides with an upcoming constitutional referendum, part of reforms promised by King Mohammed VI in response to spring protests. Activists are outraged by the case. They say that if the monarchy is serious about reform, it must allow journalists the right to speak freely.

Rachid Nini, 41, is famous for crossing the line. The founder and publisher of the leading independent newspaper, Al-Massae (The Evening), he has generated a huge readership - and tremendous controversy - through his scathing exposé of alleged government and security abuses.

Watch VOA Middle East Newsmaker: The Case of Rachid Nini:

Not the first time

Rachid Nini, founder and publisher of the leading independent newspaper, Al-Massae, in Morocco
Rachid Nini, founder and publisher of the leading independent newspaper, Al-Massae, in Morocco

Nini’s arrest on April 28 was not his first brush with trouble. In 2008, he was attacked by three men at knifepoint at a train station in the capital Rabat. A few months later, a Moroccan court fined Al-Massae a whopping $600,000 - the highest against any paper in Moroccan history - after he published details of a gay wedding in the city of Laksar Lakbir.  Among the guests, he wrote, was a certain government prosecutor.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) was swift to condemn the decision at the time and called on Morocco’s Supreme Court to overturn the ruling on appeal. “The scale of these damages and the fine imposed on Al-Massae appear to have only one purpose - to bring down the newspaper,” said Robert Mahoney, Deputy Director of the CPJ. “This is part of an ongoing campaign to cripple Morocco's independent press through defamation suits,” he added.

Pushing the limits

This past April, Nini finally seems to have gone too far. In his column “Chouf Tshouf” (literally, “Look and See”), Nini criticized Abdellatif Hammouchi, Director of Moroccan Intelligence and a member of the Crown’s inner circle, and called for the annulment of Moroccan anti-terrorism laws. Nini also revealed details of a corruption case, reportedly involving the head of the Authenticity and Modernity Party, who is also close to the Palace.  Lastly, Nini revealed the existence and location of a secret prison near Rabat, as well as the abuse and torture of political prisoners held there.

Secret police arrested Nini on April 28. He was tried and convicted not under the country’s press laws, which prohibit the imprisonment of journalists, but under criminal codes. The charges included disinformation, attacking state institutions, and  “compromising the security and safety of the homeland and citizens.”

No big surprise

To many, his arrest was not particularly surprising. In fact, many would agree Nini was as much of a muckraker as a populist crusader. Khalid Jebbar is President of the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Moroccan American Youth for Democracy. He says that while Moroccans in the diaspora believe Nini’s sentencing was unfair, “mistakes were made.”

“He’s a great journalist,” Jebbar said. “I’ll always give him that credit. But you have to watch your step. He doesn’t fear nobody [sic]. He attacks everybody. He hits where it hurts.”

Reda Oulamine
Reda Oulamine

Reda Oulamine, President of the rights group Droit et Justice and coordinator for Nini’s international defense team, spoke at a press conference at the National Press Club Tuesday. He said Moroccan courts ignored the law when they prosecuted Nini on criminal charges and subsequently denied him bail.

“There is a specific press code that should have been followed by the court,” Oulamine said, “but since [this] is what we call a political case, the judges have instructions to file certain charges and lead the trial a certain way.”

Journalists beware

Oulamine believes Nini’s sentence sends a tough warning to media.

“The government of Morocco has been using three or four ways of muzzling the press. It can be a tax audit. It can be heavy damages in defamation suits. And it can be jailing in extreme cases. Jailing journalists is a part of the old system of this king’s father [the late King Hassan II]. So we are very surprised that we’re going back now of trying to oppress the press.”

Morocco's King Mohamed VI with his Brother Prince Moulay Rachid, right, listens to the national anthem after he delivered a speech to the nation, March 9, 2011, at the king's Palace in Rabat
Morocco's King Mohamed VI with his Brother Prince Moulay Rachid, right, listens to the national anthem after he delivered a speech to the nation, March 9, 2011, at the king's Palace in Rabat

King Mohammed VI ascended the throne in 1999, after the death of his father, King Hassan II. In 2003, he announced a series of reforms. However, say activists, following a series of suicide bombings in Casablanca in May, 2003, the Crown appeared to backtrack and tightened up control, particularly on the press. When protests erupted in Morocco this spring, King Mohammed again promised reforms. In a June 18 speech, he unveiled a new constitution, scheduled for a national referendum July 1.

A good beginning?

Observers say while this is a good beginning, the reforms stop short of creating the parliamentary monarchy activists have demanded. The constitution would transfer some of the King’s power to an elected parliament, however the King would still command the military, appoint diplomats and governors and retain the right to dissolve parliament - with the approval of the Supreme Court, half of whose judges he would appoint.

The draft constitution also guarantees freedom of opinion and its expression “in all its forms" - except where prohibited by law.

Aziz Mekaour, Morocco's Ambassador to the U.S., would not comment on the Nini sentencing, which he termed "a judicial decision."

Moroccan Ambassador to US, Aziz Mekaour, during an interview with VOA, June 29, 2011
Moroccan Ambassador to US, Aziz Mekaour, during an interview with VOA, June 29, 2011

"But what I can say," Mekaour told VOA, "is that the new constitution not only provides for the freedom of the press, without allowing any censorship before or after.  And--this is very important:  In the new constitution is a totally independent judiciary, and it says very clearly that the judiciary will be totally independent, and no pressure on the judges will be allowed or permitted."

The U.S. says it is optimistic about reform in Morocco. "As you know," State Department Spokesman Victoria Nuland said at a press briefing Monday, "we believe that all people have the right to free assembly and to express themselves, but we’re encouraged by the proposals put forth by the king to transform Morocco's democratic development through constitutional, judicial and political reforms, and we’re watching closely.”

 

Follow our Middle East reports on Twitter
and discuss them on our Facebook page.

You May Like

Lebanese Media Unite to Support Palestinians in Gaza

Joint newscast billed as Arab world’s first unified news bulletin in support of Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip More

Photogallery Australian PM Alleges ‘Coverup’ at MH17 Crash Site

Meanwhile, Russia's ambassador to Malaysia denies plane's black boxes were opened before they were handed over to Malaysian officials More

Despite Advances in AIDS Treatment, Stigma Lingers

Leading immunologist tells VOA that stigma is often what prevents those infected with disease from seeking treatment More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Formi
X
July 22, 2014 10:26 AM
Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Relic of Saint Draws Catholics Worried About Immigration Issue

A Roman Catholic saint who is a figure of devotion for those crossing the border into the United States is attracting believers concerned about the plight of undocumented immigrants. Mike O'Sullivan reports from Los Angeles, where a relic of Saint Toribio has drawn thousands to local churches.
Video

Video Ukraine Rebels Surrender MH17 Black Boxes

After days of negotiations, a senior separatist leader handed over two black boxes from an airliner downed over eastern Ukraine to Malaysian experts early Tuesday. While on Monday, the U.N. Security Council unanimously demanded that armed groups controlling the crash site allow safe and unrestricted access to the wreckage.
Video

Video In Cambodia, HIV Diagnosis Brings Deadly Shame

Although HIV/AIDS is now a treatable condition, a positive diagnosis is still a life altering experience. In Cambodia, people living with HIV are often disowned by friends, family and the community. This humiliation can be unbearable. We bring you one Cambodian woman’s struggle to overcome a life tragedy and her own HIV positive diagnosis.
Video

Video Nature of Space Exploration Enters New Age

Forty-five years ago this month, the first humans walked on the moon. It was during an era of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. World politics have changed since then and -- as Elizabeth Lee reports -- so has the nature of space exploration.
Video

Video Chicago’s Argonne Lab Developing Battery of the Future

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science awarded a $120 million grant to a new technology center focused on battery development - headquartered at Argonne National Laboratory in suburban Chicago, Illinois. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there scientists are making the next technological breakthroughs in energy storage.
Video

Video In NW Pakistan, Army Offensive Causes Massive Number of Displaced

Pakistan’s army offensive in North Waziristan has resulted in the large-scale displacement of the local population. VOA's Ayaz Gul reports from northwest Pakistan where authorities say around 80 percent of the estimated 1 million internally displaced persons [IDPs] have settled in Bannu district, while much of the remaining 20 percent are scattered in nearby cities.
Video

Video Kurdish Peshmerga Force Secures Kirkuk, Its Oil

The Kurdistan regional government has sent its Peshmerga troops into the adjacent province of Kirkuk to drive out insurgents, and to secure the area's rich oil fields. By doing this, the regional government has added a fourth province to the three it officially controls. The oil also provides revenue that could make an independent Kurdistan economically strong. VOA’s Jeffrey Young went out with the Peshmerga and filed this report.
Video

Video Malaysia Reeling: Second Air Disaster in Four Months

Malaysia is reeling from the second air disaster in four months involving the country’s flag carrier. Flight 340 vanished in March and despite an extensive search, no debris has been found. And on Thursday, Flight 17, likely hit by a surface-to-air missile, came apart over eastern Ukraine. The two incidents together have left more than 500 people dead. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Kuala Lumpur.

AppleAndroid