Communications Minister Mustapha Khalfi said on Thursday that there could be no "democratic evolution" in Morocco without a free press, amid criticism by rights groups of its harsh press code.
"There cannot be democratic development without a free and responsible press," Khalfi, who is also government spokesman, told a seminar in Rabat on "Evaluating the freedom of the press."
"Morocco is classed as the worst in north Africa... The (observer) organisations use indicators that are justified, but other factors are involved that are not very precise, which is why dialogue is needed," he said.
"A number of categories do not reflect the reality on the ground," added Khalfi at the opening of a two-day seminar attended by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
Morocco ranked 138th out of a list of 179 countries in RSF's last assessment, in 2011.
Despite hopes of greater freedom of expression under a new constitution introduced last year by King Mohammed VI, the authorities continue to harass journalists and government critics under the severe criminal and press code, HRW said.
The New York-based rights group recently accused the government of "trying to control how journalists cover sensitive subjects."
It referred to the closure since 2010 of Qatari satellite TV channel Al-Jazeera's Moroccan bureau, and the case of Omar Brouksy, an AFP journalist in Rabat whose accreditation was withdrawn last month.
On Thursday, HRW regional director Sarah Leah Whitson again criticised Morocco's decision to discredit Brouksy, and denounced the practice of punishing, including with jail terms, journalists convicted of insulting senior officials.
"The Moroccan government is not the truth police, nor should it act as the truth police. It's up to the consumers to decide whether they find a report credible or not," she said.
"What is truly insulting is the efforts of the Moroccan government to decide what its citizens can and can't say, who its citizens can and can't insult."
HRW cited the case of a 24-year-old Moroccan who was jailed for three years in February by a court in the northern town of Taza, for "attacking the person of the king" in a video posted on YouTube.
RSF's Soazig Dollet, meanwhile, said her organisation was watching "very attentively to see if the government acts on its pledges."
It is vital "that the debates lead to a real reform of the press code, she said, adding that "without freedom of information, there is no democracy."© ANP/AFP