Moroccan journalists go on trial for allegedly defaming Islam

Casablanca, Morocco - Two Moroccan journalists have gone on trial for allegedly defaming Islam and breaching public morality when their weekly magazine, Nichane, published a collection of jokes.

The hearing opened in the northern coast town of Casablanca, where judges began by questioning Sanaa Al Aji, who wrote the incriminating article in the Arab-language weekly in December.

"I have always respected religion and society," Al Aji told a courtroom packed with fellow journalists, members of rights groups and a representative of press watchdog Reporters Sans Frontieres on Monday.

"All I did is report to readers a phenomenon Moroccans are seeing in jokes and anecdotes," she said, after the court president Noureddine Kassine pressed her on where she drew "the red line not to be crossed in matters of political, social and religious ethics."

"We made no judgement on religion, politics or the monarchy," said Al Aji, who is on trial with the managing editor of Nichane, Driss Ksikes, in a case that Moroccans have been watching closely since Prime Minister Driss Jettou on December 21 ordered a ban on sales and public display of the magazine.

Nichane first hit the newstands in September and rapidly got a circulation of 14,000 copies a week, particularly among young people in the north African country who said they liked its fresh and liberal-minded attitude and the way journalists wrote in "darija," the local slang.

The weekly is owned by a news group that also publishes the irreverent French-language magazine TelQuel, which on December 9 published a report on "How Moroccans laugh at religion, sex and politics," featuring jokes about the Prophet Mohamed, the late king Hassan II and his feared hardline former interior minister Driss Basri.

Several publications and their staff were given stiff fines and suspended jail sentences in 2006 in cases concerning articles found insulting to the monarchy or foreign heads of state, but the action against Nichane was the first time last year that a magazine was banned from publication.