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, 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 a Freedom House report in January, the press 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. According to government figures, 10 individuals were charged under the penal code during the year for content they published or expressed and 16 individuals were specifically charged for criminal speech, including defamation, slander, and insult (see Libel/Slander Laws and National Security).
On February 8, the court of first instance in Al Hoceima sentenced defense lawyer for Hirak protesters Abdessadek El Bouchtaoui to 20 months in prison and a 500 dirhams ($52) 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 appealed the sentence and left the country.
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 press code that limits punishments for accredited journalists to fines. Two journalists were prosecuted under the press code during the year, compared with three in 2017. The first was fined 10,000 dirhams ($1,050) and the other was fined 50,000 dirhams ($5,250); the charges against the journalists were unspecified. According to the Ministry of Justice, Tawfiq Bouachrine and Hamid al-Mahdawi were the only accredited journalists in prison for criminal acts outside of their role as journalists. The ministry also reported that 28 journalists faced charges during the year under the press code, mostly due to complaints of defamation, publishing false information, and invasion of privacy.
Journalists denounced the cumbersome administrative procedures and the long wait times to receive accreditation under the 2016 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 claim journalists waiting for their credentials had to operate without a press card in a legally ambiguous status, as the protections of the press code are only available to accredited journalists.
Many contributors working for online news outlets, and many online news outlets themselves, were unaccredited and therefore 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.
On February 1, the Rabat Court of Appeals sentenced Abdelkabir al-Horr, founder and editor of the Rassdmaroc news website, to four years in prison under the criminal code for condoning terrorism, inciting a banned demonstration, and insulting state authority in connection with his coverage of the Hirak protests in the northern Rif region. The government asserted that al-Horr was not a registered journalist in 2017 or 2018 and tried him under the penal code.
According to media reports, on May 7 and 8, directors of Yabiladi and LeDesk announced on Twitter that journalists from these online news outlets were denied accreditation after a seven-month wait. The government issued accreditation cards two days later when Head of Government Saadeddine El Othmani intervened and the directors of the publications met with a Communication Ministry official.
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 next hearing is scheduled for January 30, 2019. According to the Ministry of Justice, the four individuals were suspected of accepting foreign funds intended for acts threatening the internal security and territorial integrity of Morocco. The 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 media reports, authorities expelled at least three 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.
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 by pursuing legal cases that resulted in heavy fines and suspended publication. Such cases encouraged editors and journalists to self-censor. The government denies restricting content on media outlets.
According to media reports, in February the Ministry of Culture withdrew 25 books from the Casablanca Book Fair because they included content that negatively portrayed Islam, Judaism, or Christianity or maps of Morocco without Western Sahara included as part of the country. The ministry denied these allegations and reported that the book fair took place without any restrictions or censorship.
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.”
On June 26, a criminal court in Casablanca sentenced Hamid El Mahdaoui, editor of the online news website badil.info, to three years in prison and fined him 3,000 dirhams ($315) for failing to report a national security threat. Although El Mahdaoui was an accredited journalist, he was prosecuted under the penal code for activities outside his official duties. 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 to the police. El Mahdaoui’s defense denied the allegation 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. According to Reporters without Borders, authorities arrested El Mahdaoui in July 2017 while filming a banned protest in Al Hoceima in the Rif region. The government reported no one could verify that El Mahdaoui was in the act of filming during his arrest. Some media reports stated that El Mahdaoui was arrested while speaking with citizens in the street about the protests and their social-economic grievances.
The government did not disrupt access to the internet, but it did apply laws governing and restricting public speech and the press on the internet. The 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 2018 Freedom on the Net report, the government did not block or filter any political, social, or religious websites during that year. Social media and communication services including YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter were available in the country, as were international blog-hosting services. Freedom House claimed, however, that unfair disbursement of advertising money, strict self-censorship, and ongoing trials of journalists have prevented the emergence of a vibrant online media environment. According to the government, funds for advertisements derive from the private sector not from the public sector. The government also repeatedly reminded online journalists to obey the law. On November 24, the Ministry of Communication issued a statement warning that it considered online media outlets that do not comply with the press code illegal and urged them to stop publishing to avoid prosecution. The government also prosecuted individuals for expressing certain ideological views online, particularly related to protests in the northern Rif region.
According to the International Telecommunication Union, 61.8 percent of the population used the internet in 2018.
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, and 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 allowed authorized and unauthorized peaceful demonstrations to occur. Under the law groups of more than three persons require authorization from the Ministry of Interior to protest 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 Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2018, police allowed many protests demanding political reform and protesting government actions, but often forcibly dispersed peaceful protests or prevented demonstrations from occurring. According to the government, there was an average of 20,000 demonstrations per year. While the majority of protests proceeded peacefully, on several occasions violence erupted between protestors and police. According to the CNDH, during some unauthorized demonstrations in Tan-Tan, the security forces intervened in a “disproportionate manner.”
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, threatening to bystanders, or overflows into public highways. 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. 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, although the decision on whether to intervene sometimes depended on whether the protest was authorized. According to the government, if officers intervene in a protest, a police judiciary officer not involved in the intervention and under the supervision of the attorney general must produce a statement documenting the circumstances of the case, the number of victims, and the material damage due to the operation. The police judiciary officer must address the statement to the Attorney General’s Office with a copy to the governor of the territorial jurisdiction where the incident transpired. The government organized ongoing training on human rights-based methods to manage crowds throughout the year.
In December 2017, two brothers were found dead inside a coal pit in the northeast province of Jerada where they mined illegally. According to media reports, their deaths sparked protests over social disparities, economic grievances, and unemployment. According to the government, from December 2017 to August, approximately 300 protests involving nearly 55,000 persons total took place, injuring 29 civilians and 247 members of the security forces in violence that erupted during interventions.
On March 14, online media sources released a video showing four police vehicles driving close to protesters and severely injuring a minor during an unauthorized protest in Jerada. The government reported that security forces accidentally hit the minor while attempting to disperse the crowds. As of December authorities arrested 94 people in connection with the Jerada protests. According to press reports, several protest leaders and three minors were among the detained. According to the government, 51 were sentenced to prison, 31 of whom were sentenced to prison terms of one to five years. Some detainees were sentenced for destruction of public goods, incitement to commit crimes, and or involvement in unauthorized protests. More than 40 cases continued at year’s end.
On June 26, the Casablanca Court of Appeal convicted and issued sentences to protest leader Nasser Zefzafi and 52 other members of the Hirak protest movement. Four detainees, including Zefzafi, were sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment on charges including threatening national security. Other sentences varied from 15 years’ imprisonment to suspended sentences and fines. The detainees appealed the convictions; no updates were available at year’s end. According to the Ministry of Justice, authorities implicated 578 persons in crimes related to the Hirak protests, of whom 306 were sentenced, 204 pardoned, 39 acquitted of all charges, and 29 were awaiting trial as of November.
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. While the government does not restrict the source of funding for NGOs operating in the country, NGOs that receive funding from foreign sources are required to report the amount and its origins to the government within 30 days from the date of receipt. The government denied official recognition to NGOs that it considered advocates against Islam as the state religion or questions the legitimacy of the monarchy or the country’s territorial integrity. Authorities obstructed the registration of a number of associations perceived to be critical of the authorities by refusing to accept their registration applications or to deliver receipts confirming the filing 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. Organizations without receipts are 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 (Berber) population in public life, reported that, as of October, the nine Amazigh organizations denied registration in 2017 continued to be denied registration during the year, including the federation itself (see section 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities).
According to the CNDH, the Tan-Tan branch of the CNDH received one complaint from an organization denied registration during the year. The branch contacted government authorities, and following mediation the government registered the organization.
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 although it limited movement to areas experiencing widespread unrest. The government denied entry to individuals it believed threatened the stability of the country. 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. 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. Europe-bound human smuggling and human trafficking increased in part due to restrictions on migration via the central and eastern Mediterranean. Moroccan authorities, however, cooperated with Spanish and EU authorities to thwart trafficking networks and arrest traffickers. Parliament 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 Spanish territory.
In-country Movement: According to Amnesty International, since July law enforcement authorities seized an estimated 5,000 persons, including thousands of sub-Saharan migrants, and forcibly relocated them from areas neighboring the straits of Gibraltar and the Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta to the south of the country or near the Algerian border. According to Amnesty International, these included 14 asylum-seekers and four refugees registered with UNHCR in the country who authorities forcibly transferred to the south. At a press conference on August 30, government spokesperson Mustapha Khalfi stated the operations transferring migrants to other cities were in accordance with national laws that fight illegal immigration. The Ministry of Interior also affirmed the authorities relocated migrants without legal status from the north to other parts of Morocco in accordance with the law after local authorities had given notice to the migrants to relocate due to national security concerns.
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 and temporary status to registered Syrians. There were 755 refugees registered in the country. During the year the commission held one hearing on January 25 for 36 asylum seekers referred by UNHCR; the eight asylum seekers who attended the hearing were granted legal status. According to the Ministry of Interior, as of August, UNHCR Rabat referred 803 asylum seekers to the commission, of whom about 60 percent were Syrian nationals.
Access to Basic Services: Recognized refugees and migrants were generally 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: According to the government, during the second phase of its migrant regularization program from December 2016 to December 2017, the government granted legal status to 27,660 applicants. The government initially denied 14,898 applicants, of whom 9,328 reapplied and reviewing committees established at the local level reviewed these applications and granted those 9,328 legal status. The reviewing committees were composed of government officials, authorities, and representatives from the CNDH and migrant-serving NGOs. The program, similar to the 2014 campaign, granted legal status to foreign spouses and children of citizens and other legal residents of the country as well as to individuals with at least five years of residence in the country, a valid work contract, or chronic illness. From 2014 through 2017, the government granted legal status to more than 50,756 migrants, approximately 85 percent of the migrants who applied. 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 voluntary returns in cooperation with UNHCR and, when necessary, the resettlement of recognized refugees to third countries. Since 2004 the government and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) have cofunded for the voluntary return of an estimated 26,000 migrants to their countries of origin. According to the government, it assisted with the voluntary return to the country of origin of an average of 2,000 to 3,000 migrants per year.
Temporary Protection: The government also provided temporary protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. Syrians and Yemenis benefited from “exceptional regularization” outside of the more permanent migrant regularization program. From December 2017 to February, 23,464 migrants benefited from exceptional regularization.