October 12, 2009 / 3:46 PM / in 8 years

Morocco tries journalists over royal cartoon

AIN SEBAA, Morocco (Reuters) - The editor of a Moroccan daily newspaper and its caricaturist went on trial on Monday in what journalists say is part of an unprecedented government crackdown against the press.

<p>Moroccans read a newspaper a day after a suicide bombing in Casablanca in a file photo. REUTERS/Anton Meres</p>

The court case, in the city of Ain Sebaa, near Casablanca, is the third trial of reporters in less than 15 days.

“We are here as part of the ongoing massacre of press freedom,” said Taoufik Bouachrine, editor of Akhbar al Youm, Morocco’s second largest Arabic language daily, shortly before he and caricaturist Khalid Gueddar appeared in court.

Last month the paper printed a front page cartoon of King Mohammed’s cousin Prince Moulay Ismail celebrating his wedding to a German woman.

The government said the cartoon was an attack on the royal family and contained a Star of David. “The use of the Star of David reflects a leaning towards blatant anti-Semitism,” it said.

Both Bouachrine and Gueddar dismissed the accusations.

“We wanted to express our affection to the prince for his marriage in his cartoon. I do not know from where they get these Star of David and anti-Semitism things,” Gueddar said.

Bouachrine said he was especially concerned that the authorities shut down the paper’s headquarters without any court decision.

“It is the first time the authorities closed the offices of a newspaper since the 1960s. That worries us all as the government wants to send a strong message that the authorities can do what they want without any respect to the law,” he added.

The editor and two journalists from Arabic language weekly Al Michaal will be sentenced this week for what the government called false information after they published articles about King Mohammed’s health last month.

The editor and a reporter at daily Al Jarida al Oula are also being tried for a report on the king’s health.

“The attacks against press freedom followed each other at an infernal rate, never reached in (the last) 10 years,” wrote Ahmed Benchemsi in an editorial at his weekly French-language Telquel.

All issues of that paper’s August circulation were seized by the government because they contained a survey of how Moroccans viewed the king.

“What is happening with the press is serious, very serious and it calls into question the future of democracy of our country,” added Managing Director Benchemsi.

The government says it is committed to democracy and a free press. It has accused the editors of independent newspapers of imposing a “dictatorship of a nihilistic press” that has no respect of the kingdom’s sacred institutions.

The monarchy, army, religion and the contested Western Sahara region are still off-limits to an increasingly intrepid media in Morocco where reform-minded King Mohammed is widely seen as more tolerant than his late father King Hassan.

The Akhbar al Youm trial was suspended to next week after defence lawyers asked for more time to study the case.

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