Morocco wages all-out war on freedom of expression

Morocco wages all-out war on freedom of expression
7 min read
States of Journalism: There's a war being waged on journalists in Morocco by the ruling elite who are taking aim at critics by using a tightly-controlled and subservient media machine to smear outspoken voices, writes Abdellatif El Hamamouchi.
Demonstrators chant slogans during a demonstration in support to Omar Radi, a Moroccan journalist detained over tweet criticising judge. [Getty]

Four years ago, on 23 February 2018, Moroccan security services stormed the headquarters of Akhbar al-Youm newspaper in Casablanca and arrested its editor-in-chief Taoufik Bouachrine. Bouachrine was well known for his daily editorials criticising the Royal Palace and its network of powerful associates, and also of authoritarian regimes in the region like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The court levelled serious accusations at Bouachrine, connected to human trafficking and sexual assault, and he was sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment. The shocking and unexpected ruling  - issued after "a court case which lacked the basic elements for a fair trial" -  according to Amnesty International – stirred fear in the journalistic community and among human rights defenders.

This has reached the extent that many journalists and activists have left the country, or are thinking about leaving, in a bid to avoid sharing Bouachrine's fate. Aside from this, self-censorship among writers and journalists is becoming ever more prevalent.

"Bouachrine was well known for his daily editorials criticising the Royal Palace and its network of powerful associates, and also of authoritarian regimes in the region like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates"

Morocco's autocratic establishment used its "defamation press" to promote the trumped-up charges against Bouachrine – who had been the editor of one of the last independent newspapers in the country - to smear his reputation and cast doubt on his credibility. Fortunately, the regime's propaganda campaign against Bouachrine failed: the UN condemned his arrest and stated that it had taken place outside the framework of both Moroccan and international law, and demanded that the Moroccan state "immediately release him and compensate him for the damages he sustained," in addition to "to stopping the recurrence of such practices once and for all."

The authorities also put pressure on several women to force them to make false statements about having been sexually assaulted by Bouachrine. The case of fellow journalist Afaf Bernani is illustrative: she stated that her statements were falsified by the National Brigade of Judicial Police (BNPJ) charged with investigating the case, after they failed to extract a statement from her condemning Bouachrine.

Perspectives

When Bernani filed a complaint to set the record straight, she suddenly found herself charged with "defamation and giving false testimony" and got landed with a 6-month prison sentence. Bernani fled the country for Tunisia, after being hounded by the courts, and is now a refugee in the US, having fled from imprisonment and a media smear campaign.

Journalist Bouachrine isn’t the first, and he won't be the last in the list of journalists and human rights defenders smeared by Morocco's authorities using utterly fabricated accusations as a weapon to facilitate their arrest and imprisonment. The falsified charges also serve the purpose of character assassination, which in turn acts to scare the more prominent voices among Morocco's political and civil activists.

All of this means that Morocco's autocratic ruling elite can retain a firm grip on the public narratives in circulation.  Moreover, the goal of media-led smear campaigns is to neutralise the targeted individual - weakening their popular standing and reducing their effectiveness as a voice in the political and civil spheres.

More than a year after Bouachrine's imprisonment, the Moroccan authorities arrested Hajar Raissouni, another journalist who worked at Akhbar al-Youm. She was quickly sentenced to one year in prison for "sex outside marriage and abortion", before being released with a royal pardon after an international campaign calling for her release.

Not long afterwards, in May 2020, the Moroccan authorities arrested Soulaimane Raissouni, Hajar's uncle, who had taken over as editor-in-chief at Akhbar al-Youm after Bouachrine's arrest. Soulaimane was sentenced to 5 years in prison with "trumped-up sexual assault charges", according to Sherif Mansour, Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in New York.

Then, in July 2020, the authorities arrested investigative journalist Omar Radi, and charged him with "espionage and sexual assault". He was sentenced to six years imprisonment. The continuous stream of fabricated sexual assault charges specifically targeting independent journalists has pushed the organisation Reporters Without Borders (RSF) to issue an urgent call to the UN to condemn the misuse of rape and sexual assault accusations against journalists in Morocco.

Perspectives

"Accusing a critical voice of rape is a well-known known practice used by the Moroccan intelligence service," said Paul Coppin, the head of RSF's legal unit. "The method, which discredits journalists and deters supporters, seems to have been applied in Omar Radi's case, and in other recent cases involving journalists. Such methods neutralize critical journalists but also weaken the fight for women’s rights".

Morocco's autocracy doesn’t limit itself to only fabricating charges related to "sexual" or "moral" crimes in its war on independent journalists and opposition activists – it will also stretch to using false "financial" and "security" related accusations.

On 29 December 2020, while historian and journalist Maati Monjib was sitting down to lunch at a restaurant in Rabat, security services burst in and arrested him. Shortly afterwards he was sentenced to one year in prison for "threatening national security". Monjib had regularly written analysis articles criticising the growing intrusion of Morocco's intelligence apparatus in the political sphere, as well as the Palace's capture of executive state powers.

"Accusing a critical voice of rape is a well-known known practice used by the Moroccan intelligence service," said Paul Coppin, the head of RSF's legal unit. "The method, which discredits journalists and deters supporters, seems to have been applied in Omar Radi's case, and in other recent cases involving journalists. Such methods neutralize critical journalists but also weaken the fight for women’s rights"

Monjib had also played a prominent role in the "20 February" Movement – Morocco's iteration of the Arab Spring. And Monjib is still subject to a travel ban by the Moroccan government in a flagrant violation of the law and Constitution. Likewise, they have frozen his bank account, cutting off his access to the salary he receives as a university professor and with which he supports himself and his family, which has left him unable to manage his everyday expenses like his mortgage and car.

As well as arrests and pursuit by Morocco's courts, journalists and human rights activists are suffering from an escalating system of cybersurveillance being weaponised against them. The mobile phones of Bouachrine, Raissouni, Radi, Monjib and the author of this article, were all targeted by the Israeli spyware programme Pegusus at the same time as the harassment they were facing from the Moroccan authorities.

Moreover, scores of social media bots are being used to intimidate and scare activists – Emirati style – as happened with journalist Aida Alami, the NYTimes correspondent who received multiple death threats after she covered the deterioration of the situation around human rights in Morocco.  

To conclude, it appears that Morocco is in the process of transforming from a soft authoritarianism which allows some limited freedoms, into a fully-fledged dictatorship which will dedicate itself to crushing any opposition, independent journalists, and human rights activists.

This may be done via fake prosecutions through the judiciary and arrests or via media smear campaigns and invasive digital surveillance. In the face of silence from Western governments on all of the above, the Moroccan regime has become indifferent to its international reputation – especially since normalising relations with Israel. So today we are seeing pro-regime media, both official and unofficial, portraying Morocco as a regional power that can do what it likes – as long as it is one of Israel's allies!

Abdellatif El Hamamouchi is an investigative journalist and political science researcher from Morocco. He is a member of the Central Office of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights. He writes for The Intercept, Open Democracy, and Sada- Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is also the author of Moncef Marzouki: His Life and Thought, co-written with Maati Monjib and published by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Doha.

Follow him on Twitter: @AHamamouchi

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Opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.