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

Video Iran Nuclear Deal Becomes US Campaign Issue

Voters in three crucial battleground states - Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania - overwhelmingly oppose nuclear deal with Iran More

With IS in Coalition Cross-Hairs, al-Qaida's Syria Affiliate Reemerges

Jabhat al-Nusra has rebounded, increasingly casting itself as a critical player in battle for Syria’s future More

Lessons Learned From Katrina, 10 Years Later

FEMA chief Craig Fugate says key changes include better preparation, improved coordination among state, federal assistance agencies 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.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs