Morocco: Thousands of websites threatened to be blocked after amendments to Press and Publications Code

Journalists and human rights defenders are waiting for thousands of news websites to be blocked after the “Press and Publication Code” took effect on the 15th of this August.

The “Press and Publication Code” consists of three laws, the “Press and Publication Law No. 88.13”, Law 89.13 on the Statutes of Professional Journalists and Law No. 90.13 on the National Press Council.

The House of Representatives approved the amendments, which had been made to these laws during 2016, then they were published in the Official Gazette on 15 August 2016, to be applied on 15 August.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Moroccan Constitution represent the general framework for freedom of the press and information in the Kingdom of Morocco.

Morocco’s first press law was put in effect under the occupation on 27 April 1914, followed by the 1958 Press Law, which regulated the press under the national liberation and decolonization, and was amended in 2002 by Act No. 77.00.

Throughout the Arab Spring uprisings, Moroccan King Mohammed VI vowed to establish all human rights and guarantee freedom of opinion and expression and the right to information. He said, in a speech delivered on Friday 17 June 2011, that the subsequent constitutional amendments enshrine “all human rights, including the presumption of innocence, the guarantee of fair trial conditions, the criminalization of torture, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, and all forms of discrimination and practices degrading to human dignity; as well as guaranteeing freedom of expression and opinion, right to information , and the right to submit petitions, as prescribed by a regulatory law”. The amendments also include: “the constitutionalization of all human rights, as they are universally recognized, with all mechanisms that protect and guarantee their practices, which will make the Moroccan Constitution, a constitution for human rights, and a charter of citizenship’s rights and duties. “

The “Press and Publication Law No. 88.13” witnessed several stages within the council until it was finally adopted:

The first stage:

– The government referred the bill to the council’s office on Thursday, 4 February 2016

– Then, it was referred to the Committee on Education, Culture and Communication on Friday, 5 February 2016, when the committee studied it and issued its report.

– The law was ratified after obtaining the consensus of the Council in a plenary session held on Tuesday 21 June 2016, then the law was referred to the government.

The second stage

– The bill was returned to the Council after making amendments to articles 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 15, 16, 18, 22, 25, 30, 34, 36, 38, 43, 56, 60, 62, 67, 71, 69, 77, 78, 85, 88, 92, 93, 105 bis, 107 and 109, and adding Article 3 bis by the Chamber of Advisors on Wednesday, 20 July 2016.

– It was referred to the Commission on Education, Culture and Communication on Thursday, July 21, 2016, and the committee studied it and issued its second report.

– The law was ratified after obtaining the council’s consensus in a plenary session on Tuesday 26 July 2016, and was then referred to the Prime Minister and the minister in charge of relations with the Parliament, civil society and the Secretary General of the government.

– The law was published in the Official Gazette on August 15, 2016, and it is supposed to take effect one year later.

Those who support the Press and Publication Code (Law 88.13) see that it is the first law to realize the importance of the electronic press; as it doesn’t include any anti-freedom penalties against journalists. However, those who are concerned about press freedom believe that the government used the language and wording styles in order to hide the decline in the achievements gained by journalists since the start of independence.

For example:

Article 6 of the law, which did not exist in the previous law, provides for the right of journalists and press organizations to access information from various sources, except in case of confidential information that aimed at protecting all aspects of national defense, the state’s internal and external security, personal inviolability of people, as well as all basic freedoms and rights”.

The article, however, didn’t specify what this confidential information might include, nor the nature of the authority that would determine it. Otherwise, the journalist will eventually be subject to the view of government officials regarding the confidentiality of information.

Article 7

The new law added Article 7, which didn’t exist in the previous law. This article stipulates that the sectors of the press, publishing, printing and distribution should benefit from the public support. However, the article gives the executive branch the authority to organize the process where the government support is granted to press institutions, which means in reality that journalism would be working under the executive authority’s control, in a way that the government support won’t be given until it gains the satisfaction of the executive branch.

Article 13

This article prohibits any press organization from receiving funds or benefiting from a government or a foreign entity (directly or indirectly), except for supporting administrative capacities, awarding newspapers and journalists and services related to sale, publicity, or development of human capabilities “

We see that putting exceptions in the receipt of funds and determining a specific definition for each case gives the executive branch the right to pass funds from foreign bodies to press institutions that are only working in line with its policy, while excluding those serious and independent institutions that do are not working in order to satisfy the executive branch.

Article 18

Article 18 prohibits government employees from occupying the post of publishing director in violation of the 1958 law. Such a matter deprives press institutions and websites from people having up a good deal of expertise that worked in this field for several years.

The law’s articles also turn the publishing director to be the eye of the authority in monitoring or censoring the press articles, while being payed by the press institution. Articles from 15 to 20 from Law 88.13 define the publishing director as the owner of a press institution, or who is eligible to have a substantial shareholding in it, whose task is to ensure that journalists are restricted to the legislative and regulatory provisions relating to the practice of journalism (press code of conduct), in addition to checking news comments or pictures or anything that holds or supports the media content before publishing them. The conditions necessary to assume this post have been already set.

Article 23

Article 23 gives the public prosecution the right to show any objection to the publication of any newspaper, and file a lawsuit before the competent administrative court to adjudicate over the matter, including the reasons of rejection. Upon this article, the newspaper is required to obtain a license in order to be issued.

This article imposes a new restriction on the freedom of the press and constitutes a decline in the achievement gained by 1958 Press Law which provides that a notification is to be submitted to the king’s attorney at the court of first instance in the newspaper’s headquarters. The one in charge of the newspaper is obliged to receive a final document for publishing within a maximum period of 30 days, otherwise the newspaper is allowed to be issued.

Article 31

Being a newly added article, it grants the executive branch the authority to ban the authorization and the distribution of foreign publications and periodicals or even having it for the purpose of distribution in case they include an insult to the Islamic religion or the royal regime (monarchy), or entail an incitement against the unity of the Kingdom’s land, or defamation and prejudice to the personal life of the King or any member of the royal family, or any act of disrespect towards the King.

This article seems very loose in a way that it could be interpreted according to the wish of the ruling regime. It prohibits the right to criticize the authorities or calling for reform of the political regime. It also ban publishing views critical to the jurisprudential views prevalent in the society, or presenting any points of view that comment on national issues. On the other hand, it grants the governmental ruling power/ public prosecution the right to ban authorizing the distribution of any printed issue, which would result in the independent media institutions incurring heavy losses.

Article 35

This article deals with the filming/ shooting license as a grant given by the authority to the electronic newspapers that are meeting all the conditions. In fact, taking pictures in public places is allowed by principle. It is a right that should be granted for all citizens and should not be restricted, except for military, archaeological or environmental necessities. Pre-authorization constitutes an encroachment on this right.

Moroccan authorities have used this allegation as a pretext to prevent France 24 TV from filming an episode from “Hadith al-Awasem” program on 9 June. The program was scheduled to address the demonstrations taking place in the rural area for allegedly not having a license to shoot.

Finally, Article 1 of Act 89.13, a law on the status of professional journalists, defines a professional journalist as a journalist who regularly practices journalism in one or more written, electronic, audiovisual, public or private press organizations or news agencies in general, which are headquartered in Morocco, and that he receives his wage according his work in such institutions.

However, Article 3 of the former Professional Journalist Law didn’t make it a sole condition for journalists to receive his main wage as result of his practice of journalism profession. It states that “the provisions of this law shall apply to journalists and other employees in state facilities and public institutions who remain subject to their special statutes”.