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Arab journalists fear crackdown

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By Adam Makary

Hassan Rachidi, Al Jazeera’s bureau chief in Morocco, is one among many Middle Eastern journalists facing charges of conspiracy by local governments, who have been accused by rights organisations of seeking to curb press freedoms.

The Moroccan government has accused Rachidi of conspiracy and broadcasting false information over clashes between security forces and young unemployed protesters in Sidi Ifni, a Moroccan fishing port 100km southwest of the capital Rabat, on June 7.

Several local human rights organisations reported that between one and eight people had died in the clashes.

Ibrahim Sebaa El-Layl, an official with the Moroccan Committee for Human Rights (CMDH), also faces accusations of disseminating false information relating to the protests.

Sequence of events

“The first person that called me was El-Layl, a human rights activist and CMDH representative,” Rachidi said.

Besides CMDH, other human rights organisations sent faxes to Al Jazeera’s Rabat bureau regarding the protest.

“They signed their names to verify their reports. Even witnesses had called my journalists in the office saying how they saw young people dead on the street because of the violence,” Rachidi said.

Abiding by journalistic ethics, Rachidi called the Moroccan communication ministry to verify the casualty figures, but the government denied there were any deaths.

“I spoke with an official from the interior ministry who first denied the protest taking place, but later confirmed clashes and denied that not even one death occurred,” Rachidi said.

In his report broadcast on June 7 at 12:00 GMT, Rachidi reported the accounts from witnesses and the human rights groups, but also indicated that the Moroccan government had denied any deaths.

An hour after his report aired, the Moroccan government issued a press release, confirming the protests but denying any deaths.

The press release also said that Al Jazeera’s Morocco office had released false information and urged the Qatari-based station to issue a public retraction.

“Once it was released an hour later, we sent their document along with the information we gathered on Sidi Ifni from that point on, including CMDH reports who continued to confirm the deaths they had initially reported on the protests.”

Police interrogation

Then at 15:30 GMT, police arrived at Rachidi’s office and took him to a local police station for interrogation.

“I spent four hours at the police station and they asked me about my sources, about who sent the first bulletin from the office in Morocco to the headquarters in Doha, and about my experience as a journalist.

“Also, they asked me if I published the story to start some conspiracy and of course, I answered saying I have done my work as a journalist and that I had no intention to involve myself with any conspiracy.”

On June 13, he received a letter stating that he was to appear in a Rabat court on July 1.

Communication ministry officials then arrived to confiscate Rachidi’s press card and the accreditation which permits him to report from Morocco.

Tawfiq Boasharein, the editor-in-chief of Al Massae, an independent Moroccan newspaper, said Rachidi is not the only journalist dealing with the impact of a new wave of censorship laws sweeping the region.

Media apprehensions

Boasharein fears that Rachidi’s trial could set a precedent for governments to crack down on freedom of speech and increase the intimidation of journalists working outside state-controlled media.

He said: “In the past, the government used its executive power to repress journalists, but today, the government is using the judiciary system to suppress freedom. We are now dealing with a new set of oppressive laws. And my newspaper is suffering because of them.”

“In the past, the government used its executive power to repress journalists, but today, the government is using the judiciary system to suppress freedom”

Many critics have said that The Principles for Regulating Satellite Broadcasting Transmission in the Arab World, an Arab League charter, could empower Arab governments to further pressure local and regional media organisations.

Written by Hussein Amin, a professor of journalism at the American University in Cairo and a member of Egypt’s ruling National Democratic Party, the charter seeks to rewrite the rules for satellite broadcasters in the Arab world.

Critics view the new rules as an attempt by Cairo and Riyadh, who proposed the charter in February, to rein in pan-Arab broadcasters like Al Jazeera, whose reporting is sometimes critical of regional governments.

But four more governments – Oman, Bahrain, Syria and UAE – have now joined Lebanon and Qatar in refusing to ratify the charter.

Nadar Gohar, the owner of the Cairo News Company (CNC), is another apparent victim of attempts to control what Arab news organisations broadcast.

He was charged by Egyptian authorities with operating without proper licenses after police raided CNC’s office and confiscated the company’s transmission equipment on April 17.

Media and human rights groups condemned the Egytian crackdown.

CNC provides services to many major international media organisations including Al Jazeera, the BBC, CNN, France 2 and Dubai TV.

The proposed Arab charter could stifle the media further.

It includes 13 articles on regulating media in the Arab world, including provisions for the signatory countries to freeze or revoke the broadcasting license of any channel that breaks the regulations.

According to Rachidi, it would become increasingly difficult for journalists to do their job.

“The charter is only the beginning,” he said.

Rachidi predicts that “a kind of monitoring service will be established within each Arab country as an authority to slow down or block the progress of journalists in the region”.

But the media is refusing to be caged without a fight.

Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based media rights watchdog, has condemned the Moroccan authorities for taking away Rachidi’s press accredidation.

“This relentless attitude betrays the authorities’ real hostility towards Al Jazeera and its Moroccan editorial team,” the group said.

If found guilty, Rachidi could face up to one year in jail and a fine of 100,000DH ($13,750).