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

Beijing Warns Hong Kong Protesters, Cracks Down at Home

In suppressing protest news, China reportedly has arrested more than 20 people on the mainland who acted in support of Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters More

Competing Goals Could Frustrate Efforts to Fight Islamic State

As alliances shift and countries re-define themselves, analysts say long-standing goals of some key players in Middle East may soon compete with Western goals More

Child Sexual Exploitation to Worsen in SE Asia

Southeast Asia’s planned economic integration is a key step for boosting the region’s productivity, but carries downsides as well 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.
The Legacy of Jimmy Carter: The Preacher from Plainsi
X
October 01, 2014 10:45 AM
It is common in the United States to see tourists flock to sites associated with America's presidents. Some are privately owned and others are run by the National Park Service or the National Archives -- but most have helped draw business and people into the towns and cities where they are located. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there is one particular presidential hometown that is unique in what it has to offer those who make the trip.
Video

Video The Legacy of Jimmy Carter: The Preacher from Plains

It is common in the United States to see tourists flock to sites associated with America's presidents. Some are privately owned and others are run by the National Park Service or the National Archives -- but most have helped draw business and people into the towns and cities where they are located. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there is one particular presidential hometown that is unique in what it has to offer those who make the trip.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests Draw New Supporters on National Holiday

On the 65th anniversary of the founding of Communist China, Hong Kong protesters are hoping to stage the largest pro-democracy demonstration since the 1989 Tiananmen protests. VOA's Brian Padden visited one of the protest sites mid-day, when the atmosphere was calm and where the supporters were enthusiastic about joining what they are calling the umbrella revolution.
Video

Video India's PM Continues First US Visit

India's prime minister is on his first visit to Washington, to strengthen political and economic ties between the world's oldest and the world biggest democracies. He came to the U.S. capital from New York, the first stop on his five-day visit to the country that denied him an entry visa in the past. From Washington, Zlatica Hoke reports Modi seemed most focused on attracting foreign investment and trade to increase job opportunities for his people.
Video

Video Malaysia Struggles to Stop People Joining Jihad

Malaysian authorities say militant groups like the so-called "Islamic State" have used social media to entice at least three dozen Malaysian Muslims to fight in what they call "jihad" in Syria and Iraq. As Mahi Ramkrishnan reports from Kuala Lumpur, counterterrorism police are deeply worried about what could happen when these militants return home.
Video

Video Could US Have Done More to Stop Rise of Islamic State?

President Obama says airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria will likely continue for some time because, in his words, "there is a cancer that has grown for too long." So what if President Obama had acted sooner in Syria to arm more-moderate opponents of both the Islamic State and the Syrian government? VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports from the United Nations.
Video

Video Treasure Hunters Seek 'Hidden Treasure' in Central Kenya

Could a cave in a small village in central Kenya be the site of buried treasure? A rumor of riches, left behind by colonialists, has some residents dreaming of wealth, while others see it as a dangerous hoax. VOA's Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Ebola Patients Find No Treatment at Sierra Leone Holding Center

At a holding facility in Makeni, central Sierra Leone, dozens of sick people sit on the floor in an empty university building. They wait in filthy conditions. It's a 16-hour drive by ambulance to Kailahun Ebola treatment center. Adam Bailes was there and reports on what he says are some of the worst situations he has seen since the beginning of this Ebola outbreak. And he says it appears case numbers may already be far worse than authorities acknowledge.
Video

Video Identifying Bodies Found in Texas Border Region

Thousands of immigrants have died after crossing the border from Mexico into remote areas of the southwestern United States in recent years. Local officials in south Texas alone have found hundreds of unidentified bodies and buried them in mass graves in local cemeteries. Now an anthropologist and her students at Baylor University have been exhuming bodies and looking for clues to identify them. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Waco, Texas.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid