Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
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.
The government limited freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The law provides for the right of peaceful assembly. The government generally permitted authorized and unauthorized peaceful demonstrations to occur. Under the law, groups of more than three persons require authorization from the Ministry of Interior to assemble publicly. Security forces intervened on occasion to disband both authorized and unauthorized protests when officials deemed the demonstration a threat to public security.
Some NGOs complained that authorities did not apply the approval process consistently and used administrative delays and other methods to suppress or discourage unwanted peaceful assembly. According to HRW’s World Report 2017 and Amnesty International’s Freedom in the World 2017, police allowed many protests demanding political reform and protesting government actions, but on some occasions forcibly dispersed peaceful protests or prevented demonstrations from occurring.
Security forces were generally present both in and out of uniform at protests, particularly if the protest was expected to address a sensitive issue. In general, officers were under orders to observe and not intervene, unless the demonstration becomes unruly or threatening. In those cases, under standard operating procedures, officers are required to give the crowd three warnings that force will be used if they do not disperse before intervening. Security forces then attempt to force protestors to leave the area, using riot shields to push standing protestors into a designated area or carrying seated protestors to the designated area. If such lower level tactics fail, security forces may escalate to the use of batons, water cannons, or tear gas to clear the area and restore order. Security force tactics did not differ significantly whether the protest was authorized or unauthorized; however, the decision on whether to intervene did sometimes depend on whether the protest was permitted. The government organized ongoing training on human rights-based management of crowds throughout the year.
Protests continued in Al Hoceima following the October 2016 death of a fish vendor during a confrontation with authorities over illegally caught fish.
While the majority of protests proceeded peacefully, on several occasions violence erupted between protestors and police. On at least three occasions, police used tear gas to disperse crowds of unauthorized or violent protestors. Approximately 620 protests occurred in and around Al Hoceima between October 2016 and early November 2017, generally involving several hundred to a few thousand protestors demanding investment in the region and the release of detained prisoners. The government reported that 589 members of the security forces were injured during the protests, including eight with serious injuries. Authorities arrested more than 600 protestors during protests in and around Al Hoceima since October 2016 for alleged violence, including arson of a police barracks. Approximately 300 were convicted and serving prison sentences as of November, while the king pardoned 47 protestors. Protest leader Nasser Zefzafi, along with 50 other members of the Hirak protest movement are imprisoned at Oukacha (Ain Sebaa) prison in Casablanca, while their trial at the Casablanca Court of Appeals on national security related charges is ongoing. On April 26, the Court of First Instance in Al Hoceima sentenced seven individuals in connection with the vendor’s death to between five and seven months in prison plus fines, and found four others innocent; one of the individuals sentenced to prison was a Ministry of Interior official and the other six were civilians (see section 4).
On April 15 and 16, there were small, unauthorized, and peaceful protests of up to several hundred participants in several cities in response to the April 11 death of a three-year-old Amazigh girl from the rural area of Tinghir, who died from trauma following a fall when two hospitals nearby lacked medical equipment to diagnose and treat her. Protestors accused the Ministry of Health of neglect and called for better provision of services. Police did not intervene in these protests, which dispersed peacefully.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The constitution and the law provide for freedom of association, although the government sometimes restricted this freedom. The government prohibited or failed to recognize some political opposition groups by deeming them unqualified for NGO status. The government denied official recognition to NGOs that it considered advocates against Islam as the state religion, the legitimacy of the monarchy, or Morocco’s territorial integrity. Authorities obstructed the registration of a number of associations perceived to be critical of the authorities by refusing to accept registration applications or to deliver receipts confirming the lodging of applications (see section 5).
The Ministry of Interior required NGOs to register before being recognized as legal entities, but there was no comprehensive national registry publicly available. A prospective organization must submit its objectives, bylaws, address, and photocopies of members’ identification cards to the ministry. The ministry issues a receipt to the organization that signifies formal approval. If the organization does not receive a receipt within 60 days, it is not formally registered, although the government tolerated activities of several organizations without these receipts. Unregistered organizations could not access government funds or legally accept contributions.
The National Federation of Amazigh Associations, an organization supporting the inclusion of the Amazigh population in public life, reported that nine Amazigh organizations were denied registration this year as of September, including the Federation itself (see section 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities).
Authorities continued to monitor Justice and Charity Organization activities.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, and other persons of concern. The government also provided funding to humanitarian organizations to provide social services to migrants, including refugees.
The government continued to make travel documents available to Sahrawis, and there were no reported cases of authorities preventing Sahrawis from traveling out of the country. The government encouraged the return of Sahrawi refugees from Algeria and elsewhere if they acknowledged the government’s authority over Western Sahara.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Refugees and asylum seekers, as well as migrants, were particularly vulnerable to abuse; however, since the 2014 and ongoing migrant regularization programs, there were fewer reports of mass arrests and abuse of sub-Saharan migrants by security forces. While human smuggling and trafficking appeared to increase due to difficulties with other routes, Moroccan authorities cooperated with Spanish authorities to break up trafficking networks and arrest traffickers. Parliament also passed legislation in 2016 to improve protections for victims. There were reports of government authorities arresting or detaining migrants, particularly around the Spanish enclave cities of Melilla and Ceuta, and forcibly relocating them to other parts of the country to deter attempts to cross illegally into the two enclaves.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of refugee status. The government has historically deferred to UNHCR as the sole agency in the country entitled to perform refugee status determinations and verify asylum cases. UNHCR referred cases that meet the criteria for refugee recognition to the government’s interministerial Commission in Charge of Hearings for Asylum Seekers within the Bureau of Refugees and Stateless Persons. The government recognizes two types of asylum status: refugees designated according to the UNHCR statute and the “exceptional regularization of persons in irregular situation” under the 2016 migrant regularization program. The government continued to grant status to UNHCR-recognized refugees, temporary status to registered Syrians, and regularized migrant status to qualifying applicants under the migrant regularization program.
Access to Basic Services: Recognized refugees and migrants were able to work and access health care and education services, including publicly funded professional and vocational training. Requests on behalf of women and children receive automatic approval, with immediate access to education and healthcare. Asylum seekers were, however, sometimes unable to access the national health care system and continued to have little access to the judicial system until recognized as refugees.
Durable Solutions: In December 2016 the government launched the second phase of its migrant regularization program to provide legal status to migrants in exceptional circumstances. The program, similar to the 2014 campaign, grants legal status to foreign spouses and children of citizens and other legal residents of the country, as well as individuals with at least five years of residence in the country, a valid work contract, or chronic illness. As of October, 22,986 individuals had received status under the program, of the more than 25,000 requests submitted. Migrants and refugees may obtain Moroccan nationality if they meet the legal requirements of the Nationality Law and submit a request to the Ministry of Justice. The government facilitated the resettlement of recognized refugees to third countries when necessary, or voluntary returns, in cooperation with UNHCR.
Temporary Protection: The government also provided temporary protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. On June 20, World Refugee Day, the king instructed the government to admit 28 Syrians who had been stranded between the borders of Morocco and Algeria for two months. Syrians and Yemenis benefit from “exceptional regularization” outside of the more permanent migrant regularization program.