March 19, 2020 / 1:52 PM / 17 days ago

Morocco makes a dozen arrests over coronavirus fake news

Rabat (Reuters) - Moroccan police have arrested at least a dozen people for spreading rumours about the coronavirus, including a woman who used her YouTube channel to say the disease did not exist, authorities said on Thursday.

“Fake news is the first cause of panic among citizens,” said Prime Minister Saad Eddine El-Otmai, comparing the spread of misinformation with the contagion of the disease.

Other people were arrested for opposing strict measures against public gathering, urging people to ignore them, or saying a lockdown had been implemented when it had not.

On the same day, the government approved a draft law governing the use of social media, aiming to deter fake news and cyber crimes undermining public order and the economy.

Rights groups have criticised Morocco for what they see as an increasing crackdown on free speech over the past year, including prison terms for people who have expressed dissent on social media.

The North African kingdom has confirmed 61 cases of the coronavirus and two deaths. Most of the sick caught the virus abroad, but it has now also started to transmit within Moroccan cities.

The government has closed all mosques, schools, cafes and restaurants, as well as sports and entertainment venues, and has banned all international passenger flights.

The most recent arrest was of a 48-year-old woman who was taken into custody on Wednesday after denying the existence of the coronavirus on her YouTube channel and urging her compatriots to ignore precautionary measures.

Another woman, in an audio recording widely shared on WhatsApp, said the tourist hub of Marrakech, one of Morocco’s biggest cities, was under lockdown and warned people not to go there.

A man known as “Abou Naim” was arrested for “instigating hatred” and “undermining public order” after he recorded a video on social media criticizing the authorities’ decision to close all mosques.

Cars with loudspeakers have been deployed in Moroccan cities asking people to stay at home. Public transport, streets and market places have been disinfected.

A government fund created to upgrade health infrastructure and assist the most vulnerable economic sectors has received more than $1.5 billion in donations.

Reporting by Ahmed Eljechtimi; Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by William Maclean and Giles Elgood

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