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

India PM Modi's party distances itself from religious conversions

BJP under fire for being slow to rein in hardline affiliate groups allegedly trying to promote a Hindu-dominant agenda by luring Muslims and Christians to convert to Hinduism More

Anti-Whaling Group Found in Contempt of Court

Radical environmentalists who threw acid and smoke bombs at Japanese whalers in the waters off Antarctica continue their campaign to disrupt Japan's annual whale hunt More

UN's Ban Urges End to Discrimination Against Ebola Workers

Ban was speaking in Guinea on the second day of a whistle-stop tour aimed at thanking healthcare workers of the countries at the heart of the epidemic 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.
Sudan School Becomes Target of Aerial Attacksi
X
December 19, 2014 12:45 AM
The school dropout rate is at an all-time high in Sudan's South Kordofan state because many schools have been destroyed during the three-year civil war between the government and SPLA-N rebel forces. Adam Bailes visited Sudan's Nuba Mountains' region and reports many children are simply too scared to go to school
Video

Video Sudan School Becomes Target of Aerial Attacks

The school dropout rate is at an all-time high in Sudan's South Kordofan state because many schools have been destroyed during the three-year civil war between the government and SPLA-N rebel forces. Adam Bailes visited Sudan's Nuba Mountains' region and reports many children are simply too scared to go to school
Video

Video VOA Reporter Tours Devastated Peshawar School

Islamist militants wearing military uniforms and strapped with explosives attacked a military run school Tuesday in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar. At least 141 people were killed in the horrific attack, most of them young students. VOA reporter Ayaz Gul visited the devastated school and attended the funeral of the principal who courageously tried to save her students from the deadly attack.
Video

Video Nigerians Fleeing Boko Haram Languish in Camp Near Capital

In its five-year effort to impose Islamic law in northeastern Nigeria, the Boko Haram extremist group has killed thousands of people and forced hundreds of thousands to flee. Some of those who ran for their lives now live in squalor on the edges of the capital, Abuja. Chris Stein reports for VOA.
Video

Video Putin Says Russian Economy Will Emerge Stronger

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said his country's sinking economy will not only recover but also become stronger, despite falling oil prices and Western sanctions over Ukraine. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Detained Turkish Journalists Follow Teachings of US-Based Preacher

The Turkish government’s jailing of critical journalists has sparked international condemnation and is being seen as an effort to undermine the followers of an ailing Turkish preacher based in the United States. VOA religion reporter Jerome Socolovsky has more.
Video

Video ‘Anti-Islamization’ Marches Increase Tensions In Germany

Anti-immigrant rallies in Germany have been building in recent weeks, peaking Monday night in the city of Dresden where tens of thousands of people turned out to demonstrate against what they call the ‘Islamization’ of the West. Germany has offered asylum to more Syrian refugees than any other country, and this appears to have set off the protests. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Aceh Rebuilt Decade After Tsunami, But Scars Remain

On December 26, 2004 there was an earthquake in the Indian Ocean so powerful it caused the Earth’s axis to wobble a few centimeters. Onshore on the island of Sumatra, the resulting tsunami was devastating. A decade later, VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where although there is little remaining evidence of the physical devastation, the psychological scars among survivors remain.
Video

Video Refugees Living in Kenya Long for Peace in the Home Countries

Kenya is host to numerous refugees seeking safe haven from conflict. Immigrants from Somalia face challenges in their new lives in Kenya. Ahead of International Migrants Day (December 18) Lenny Ruvaga has more for VOA News from the Kenyan capital.

All About America

AppleAndroid