SALE, Morocco (AP) — A Moroccan editor facing terrorism charges appeared in court for the first time Tuesday as fears grew that his case was the opening salvo in a new assault on press freedom in this nation, where independent journalists are increasingly publishing on the Internet.
Ali Anouzla was arrested and charged with advocating terrorism and aiding terrorists in September after his online news site Lakome.com wrote about an al-Qaida video criticizing Morocco. He faces up to 20 years in prison.
His lawyer, Hassan Semlali, could not divulge the events of the hours-long closed-door session Tuesday, but said he had requested that editor be freed on bail, and that Anouzla had "reaffirmed that he is totally against terrorism." The questioning in what is still an investigative phase will resume Oct. 30.
The site Lakome has since been blocked in Morocco at Anouzla's request, Semlali said.
Anouzla is known for his secular outlook, so many see the charges as punishment for his fierce criticism of Morocco's King Mohammed VI. Several dozen of his supporters protested in front of the courthouse, calling for his unconditional release.
"They attack major figures to intimidate the others and promote self-censorship." said Khadja Ryadi, the head of a group backing Anouzla.
Morocco, a popular tourist destination, is generally considered more stable and open than its North African neighbors, but it still ranks low on press freedom indexes.
Starting in 2009, a number of publications known for their independent stances were shut down by the government or forced out of business. Most of the print and broadcast media now strictly follow official red lines — avoiding criticism of the king, the country's policies in the Western Sahara and Islam.
So many of the independent-minded journalists have gone online instead.
This year alone, Anouzla's site broke the story of the king's accidental pardon of a convicted Spanish child molester, warned about a post-Arab Spring crackdown in the country and criticized the king's frequent trips to France.
"The independent press has left for the internet," Ryadi said. "So now the repression has moved to the internet."
Morocco's government has promised to reform the penal code so journalists don't face jail time for their writings. Amnesty International, which has been closely following the case, said Anouzla's prosecution does not bode well for those promised reforms.
"This case is a very worrying signal for us," Amnesty researcher Sirine Rached said.
Smail Bellaoualli in Rabat, Morocco, contributed to this report.