Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
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, the institution of the monarchy, or the government’s positions regarding territorial integrity and Western Sahara. Such criticism can result in prosecution under the penal code, with punishments ranging from fines to prison time, despite the freedom of expression provided for in the 2016 press code. The 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. According to the Freedom House 2019 Freedom in the World report, the press in Morocco enjoys a significant degree of freedom when reporting on economic and social policies, but authorities used an array of financial and legal mechanisms to punish critical journalists. International and domestic human rights groups criticized criminal prosecutions of journalists and publishers as well as 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 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 Western Sahara. The government sometimes prosecuted persons who expressed criticism on these topics. HRW reported during the year that the government demonstrated increasing intolerance of public dissent, particularly pf persons who were critical of the monarchy, state authorities, or Islam. According to government figures, 22 individuals were specifically charged for criminal speech, including defamation, slander, and insult (see Libel/Slander Laws and National Security).
On April 19, the al-Hoceima Court of Appeals increased the sentence for defense lawyer for Hirak protesters Abdessadek El Bouchtaoui from 20 to 24 months in prison and sustained a 500 dirhams ($50) fine for insulting officials and representatives of authority while on duty, undermining the authority of justice, incitement to commit crimes, public incitement via Facebook to participate in unauthorized protests and crimes, and participation in unauthorized protests. According to Amnesty International, the government’s charges were based on 114 posts on El Bouchtaoui’s Facebook account and comments he made on national media criticizing the security forces’ use of force against Hirak protesters. El Bouchtaoui fled Morocco prior to the Appeals Court sentence in February 2018, and after more than a year in exile on February 13, France issued political asylum to Bouchtaoui, his wife, and three children. In April the Tetouan Court of Appeals also suspended El Bouchtaoui’s legal license for two years.
On March 27, a court of first instance convicted four individuals to a six-month suspended prison sentence and fine of 10,000 dirhams ($1,000) for publishing information from a parliamentary committee under the new access to information law that came into force during the year. The individuals reported publishing the information because of concerns over corruption by elected officials.
On November 25, the Sale Court of First Instance sentenced Moroccan rapper Mohamed Mounir to one year in prison and a fine of 1,000 dirhams ($100) for insulting police via a live social media feed posted in late October. The rapper confessed to the crime, stating his post came after two police officers assaulted him during a stop in mid-October to check his identity papers. Although Mounir was convicted for those online comments, his defense team, AMDH, and Amnesty International attributed his arrest and prosecution instead to a controversial rap video, titled “Long Live the People,” released on YouTube three days prior to the arrest. The defense planned to appeal the sentence at year’s end.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media, as well as partisan media, were active and expressed a variety of views within the restrictions of the law. The press code limits punishments for accredited journalists to fines. As of July 30, no journalists were prosecuted under the press code during the year, compared with two in 2018. According to the Ministry of Justice, Hajar Raissouni, Taoufiq Bouachrine (see section 1.d.), and Hamid al-Mahdaoui (see section 1.c.) are accredited journalists who were in prison during the year for criminal acts the government claimed were outside of their role as journalists. According to authorities, 22 individuals faced charges during the year for defamation, slander, or blasphemy.
Journalists continued to denounce the cumbersome administrative procedures and the long wait times to receive accreditation under the press code. Some members of the press claimed that journalists from outlets close to the government and palace received their credentials sooner than journalists from independent outlets. They claimed journalists waiting for their credentials had to operate without a press card in an ambiguous legal status, as the protections of the press code are only available to accredited journalists.
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.
The trial for seven members of the Moroccan Association for Investigative Journalism, including Hicham Mansouri, Maati Monjib, and Hisham Almiraat, has been repeatedly postponed since 2015; the individuals had not been sentenced at year’s end. According to the Ministry of Justice, Mansouri, Monjib, and Almiraat were suspected of accepting foreign funds intended for acts threatening the internal security and territorial integrity of the country. The seven individuals were charged for posing a threat to the internal security of the country, fraud, managing an association exercising unauthorized acts, and accepting unauthorized foreign funds. The seven remained free but reported hardships due to the open case.
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. According to Reporters without Borders, the government intimidated activists and journalists, often putting them on trial for matters seemingly unrelated to journalism or political activities.
On September 30, the Rabat Court of First Instance sentenced journalist Hajar Raissouni to a 500 dirham ($50) fine and one year in prison for a presumed illegal abortion and premarital sex, charges the defense and Amnesty International denounced as lacking medical evidence. Police arrested Raissouni at a doctor’s clinic in Rabat, along with her fiance, gynecologist, anesthesiologist, and nurse. Raissouni claims that while she was held in custody, police forced her to undergo a physical examination against her will and questioned her about her family ties and journalism, particularly her writing on the Hirak movement. Raissouni told reporters she believes she was targeted because of her critical reporting and family connections to the Justice and Development Party. Reporters without Borders called the case an example of “profoundly unjust” persecution of a journalist. Raissouni and codefendants received a royal pardon on October 16 before the case moved to an appellate court.
According to media reports, authorities expelled multiple international journalists during the year because they lacked valid permits. The government stated that foreign media representatives who comply with local laws are allowed to perform their duties without interference and that allegations that authorities expelled foreign journalists were unsubstantiated.
In July and October, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported that several local journalists believed they were under surveillance. For example, some journalists stated at times their private conversations were publicized without their consent in an apparent attempt by the state to discredit their reporting. The CPJ also reported that some journalists jailed during the Rif protests in 2016 to 2017 reported authorities had referenced private WhatsApp messages while questioning them under detention.
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. Publications and broadcast media require government accreditation, and the government may deny and revoke accreditation as well as suspend or confiscate publications that breach public order or criticize Islam, the institution of the monarchy, or the government’s positions on territorial integrity. The press code lists threats to public order as one of the criteria for censorship. While the government rarely censored the domestic press, it exerted pressure through written and verbal warnings and by pursuing legal cases that resulted in heavy fines and suspended publication. Such cases encouraged editors and journalists to self-censor. The government denied restricting content on media outlets.
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 were not registered as journalists may be charged for defamation, libel, and slander under the criminal code, as can accredited journalists for their private actions.
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.”