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Leading Moroccan journalist is sentenced to one year in prison

By Martin Jay, For CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Rachid Niny is the publisher of the Al-Massae newspaper
  • He was convicted on the charge of disinformation
  • Rights groups decry the verdict and call for more freedoms

Casablanca, Morocco (CNN) -- One of Morocco's most controversial journalists and publisher has been convicted of publishing misleading information and sentenced to one year in prison after articles he wrote enraged the government.

Rachid Niny is the publisher of Al-Massae, a leading newspaper that on Friday devoted its front page to coverage of his case. Niny had previously clashed with authorities and been fined for his work.

The publisher was convicted on the charge of "disinformation" after writing articles criticizing the Moroccan intelligence agency and calling for it to be put under parliamentary control.

Under Moroccan law, a journalist or publisher can be fined for making errors in reporting about matters concerning the state.

Progress has been made toward allowing journalists more freedom in Morocco in recent years, though cases against them for reporting what the state considers to be wrong are still common.

A team of journalists from Al Jazeera was thrown out of the country in November for what the state deemed to be incorrect reporting on the prickly subject of Western Sahara, the former Spanish colony that Morocco took over when Madrid removed its administration in 1975.

In 2008 and 2009, two prison sentences were handed down to two journalists, one of whom refused to reveal his sources.

Niny's lawyer said his client would appeal the Thursday decision.

"We reject this verdict," said Khalid Sefiani. "Prison for him is a violation of the liberty of journalism and to the future of Morocco. ... We regret that the court dismissed the application of the press code in favor of a penal one."

The verdict was met by protests from Niny's supporters.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said the court's decision was "another example of how the Moroccan judiciary is utilized to curb press freedom."

Niny, who was detained in April, has written about corruption among government officials and called for the annulment of Morocco's anti-terrorism law, the organization said.

Human rights observers in Morocco also lashed out against the state.

"We totally condemn this decision as no journalist in Morocco should be sent to jail for writing any kind of article," said Khadija Ryadi, president of the Moroccan Association of Human Rights (AMDH).

"And furthermore, the way this case was handled by the prosecutors was also astonishing in that Mr. Niny's witnesses were not allowed to be presented in court," she said, calling the conviction a "political decision."

Despite the verdict, Niny will still be allowed to work as a journalist.

Al-Massae has a circulation of about 113,000 and is Morocco's largest newspaper and arguably the most respected.

Journalists at the paper said that Niny had spoken out against corruption, implicating a high-profile figure close to the king, and published information about a security official.

In its Friday cover story, Al-Massae hinted that the decision had come from the king or someone very close to King Mohamed VI. "It's a political solution from the highest powers in the country," it read.