The constitution and law generally provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, although they criminalize and restrict some freedom of expression in the press and social media--specifically criticism of Islam, of the institution of the monarchy, and of the government’s positions regarding territorial integrity and the Western Sahara. Such criticism can result in prosecution under the penal code, with punishments ranging from fines to jail time, despite the freedom of expression provided for in the 2016 press code. The 2016 press code applies only to journalists accredited by the Ministry of Communication for speech or publications in the line of work; private speech by accredited journalists remains punishable under the penal code. International and domestic human rights groups criticized criminal prosecutions of journalists and publishers as well as of libel suits, claiming that the government principally used these laws to restrict independent human rights groups, the press, and social media.
Freedom of Expression: The law criminalizes the criticism of Islam, of the legitimacy of the monarchy, of state institutions, of officials such as those in the military, and of the government’s positions regarding territorial integrity and the Western Sahara. The government sometimes prosecuted persons who expressed criticism on these topics. According to government figures, 16 individuals were charged under the penal code this year for criminal speech, including praising terrorism, defamation, inciting rebellion, and insult (see Libel/Slander Laws and National Security).
Press and Media Freedom: Independent media, as well as partisan media, were active and expressed a wide variety of views within the restrictions of the law. In 2016 parliament passed a new press code that limits punishments for accredited journalists to fines. Three journalists were prosecuted under the press code during the year, compared with eight in 2016.
Many contributors working for online news outlets, and many online news outlets themselves, were unaccredited and therefore were not covered under the press code for their publications. They remained subject to provisions of the antiterrorism law and the penal code that permit the government to jail and impose financial penalties on anyone who violates restrictions related to defamation, libel, and insults. In addition, the government can apply the penal code to accredited journalists for actions outside of their official duties.
The government also enforced strict procedures governing journalists’ meetings with NGO representatives and political activists. Foreign journalists needed, but did not always receive, approval from the Ministry of Communication before meeting with political activists.
On July 25, the court of first instance in Al Hoceima sentenced Hamid El Mahdaoui, editor of news website badil.info, to a three-month prison sentence and 20,000 dirham ($2,000) fine for inciting individuals to participate in a prohibited demonstration. Although El Mahdaoui was an accredited journalist, he was prosecuted under the penal code for activities outside his official duties. Authorities claimed that El Mahdaoui had given a speech in Al Hoceima calling on citizens to demonstrate. El Mahdaoui denied the allegations and claimed he was in Al Hoceima to report on ongoing protests. His lawyer told HRW that El Mahdaoui was asked his opinion of the Hirak protest movement and responded that individuals have the right to protest. A police officer filmed the exchange, and the officer’s video was used as evidence in the trial. El Mahdaoui’s sentence was increased to one year in prison on appeal on September 12. In a separate case in Casablanca, authorities questioned El Mahdaoui on additional charges of failing to report a national security threat. Authorities alleged that El Mahdaoui received information that an individual intended to smuggle weapons into the country for use in protests but failed to report it. El Mahdaoui’s defense denied the conversation, and claimed that even if it had occurred, there would have been no need to report such information because El Mahdaoui knew it would be impossible to smuggle in weapons. The second case was expected to begin in November.
The trial for seven members of the Moroccan Association for Investigative Journalism, including Hicham Mansouri, Maati Monjib, and Hisham Almiraat, has been repeatedly delayed since 2015.
Violence and Harassment: Authorities subjected some journalists to harassment and intimidation, including attempts to discredit them through harmful rumors about their personal lives. Journalists reported that selective prosecutions served as a mechanism for intimidation.
On July 25, authorities expelled journalists Jose Luis Navazo and Fernando Sanz with the Spanish newspaper El Correo Diplomatico. Navazo had resided in Morocco for more than 15 years. According to the journalists, police escorted them to the border without interrogation or providing a reason for the expulsion. The journalists allege, and the government later confirmed, that they were expelled for their reporting on protests in the Rif. The government claimed that their actions posed a threat to public security. Authorities expelled at least three other international journalists during the year, citing a lack of valid permits.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Self-censorship and government restrictions on sensitive topics remained serious hurdles to the development of a free, independent, and investigative press. While the government rarely censored the domestic press, it exerted pressure by pursuing legal cases that resulted in heavy fines and suspended publication. Such cases encouraged editors and journalists to self-censor. A Freedom House report in 2016 noted an “atmosphere of fear among journalists” that led to increased self-censorship. The press code lists threats to public order as one of the criteria for censorship. Publications and broadcast media must also obtain government accreditation. The government may deny and revoke accreditation as well as suspend or confiscate publications.
In June the Casablanca airport police removed from circulation an issue of the Arabic language Arab women’s monthly magazine Sayidaty. The magazine included an article with a map of the Arab world that showed the flag of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic over the area of Western Sahara.
Libel/Slander Laws: The press code includes provisions that permit the government to impose financial penalties on accredited journalists and publishers who violate restrictions related to defamation, libel, and insults. A court may impose a prison sentence if an accredited journalist is unable or unwilling to pay the fine.
Individuals who are not registered as journalists may be charged for defamation, libel, and slander under the criminal code, as can accredited journalists for their private actions. On August 18, Mohamed Taghra was sentenced to 10-months’ imprisonment and a 500 dirham ($50) fine under the criminal code on charges of libel and slander against the Royal Gendarmerie, following his posting of a video on YouTube accusing gendarmerie officers of falsifying records of accidents. Taghra was not a registered journalist and did not publish the video via a registered journalistic outlet, and he was charged under the criminal code.
National Security: The antiterrorism law provides for the arrest of individuals, including journalists, and filtering websites deemed to “disrupt public order by intimidation, terror, or violence.”
In December 2016, eight individuals were arrested for posting messages of support on social media for the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey. The group was charged with incitement and praise of terrorism and received sentences of between one and two years’ imprisonment in April. On July 29, the king pardoned the group. On June 10, authorities arrested El Mortada Iaamrachen for social media postings accusing the state of organizing terrorist attacks and the protests in the Rif to justify arrest campaigns. Iaamrachen’s supporters contend his posts were “sarcastic.” On November 30, the Rabat Court of Appeal sentenced Iaamrachen to five years’ imprisonment for incitement and praise of terrorism.
The government did not disrupt access to the internet, but it did apply laws governing and restricting public speech and the press to the internet. The 2016 press code stipulates that online journalism is equivalent to print journalism. Laws on combatting terrorism permit the government to filter websites. According to Freedom House’s 2017 Freedom on the Net report, the government did not block or filter any websites during the year. However, Freedom House alleges that the threat of press code restrictions, and selective distribution of government advertising revenue had the effect of limiting the diversity of online content. Activists claimed access to certain hashtags on Twitter was restricted for short periods in advance of or during expected large protests to disrupt organization. The government also prosecuted individuals for expressing certain ideological views online (see section 2.a., National Security).
According to the International Telecommunication Union, 58 percent of the population used the internet in 2016.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The law permits the government to criminalize presentations or debate questioning the legitimacy of Islam, the legitimacy of the monarchy, state institutions, or the status of Western Sahara. The law restricts cultural events and academic activities, although the government generally provided more latitude to political and religious activism confined to university campuses. The Ministry of Interior approved appointments of university rectors.