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It's a bad time for journalists and activists in Morocco

Press freedom appears to be increasingly under threat as the authorities crack down while the world is looking elsewhere

Journalists are no special breed. They’re ordinary people asking questions, doing research and bearing witness to what’s going in front of them. Journalists ask questions, activists shout them, others only think them in silence. But the questions are the same. Which is why freedom of speech, the right to information and press freedom are so tightly connected.

Over the past few years however, they all seem to be increasingly under threat in Morocco.

I’m writing this in Nijmegen in The Netherlands, where I have been since I was expelled from Morocco on 16 November. Officially I was thrown out for working without a press card – which is true, I didn’t have one. So Morocco had the legal right to put me on a boat to Spain in the middle of the night.

But the question isn’t whether I was expelled lawfully, but why I never got a press card in the first place.

Over the past two years I asked - pleaded, even - for it many times and handed in all the necessary paper work. Yet a decision was never made. I’m not sure whether it was incompetence, indifference or malevolence, but I fear it was the latter. Without a press card, authorities always have something on you. And indeed, quite a few colleagues who are in the same position have told me that my expulsion has made them even more careful.

I still don’t know exactly why I was put on that boat – aside from the official reason given. Maybe it was the research in Nador in the days before, on the hundreds, even thousands of Moroccans leaving for Turkey to cross to Europe. Maybe it was a phone call with an activist earlier that day, or a radio report on migrants in Tanger the week before. I don’t know.

Journalists under fire

But I do know I got off easy compared to some Moroccan colleagues. They don’t have the luxury of waving their EU or US passports when things get edgy.

The most recent example is Taoufik Bouachrine, director the daily Akhbar Al Yaoum. A few days ago, he was sentenced to two months suspended imprisonment and a fine of 1.6 million dirhams ($160,000). His newspaper wrote about an alleged bribe of an American journalist, who was accused of being paid to write favourably on Morocco.

In February of this year, the Minister of Communication Mustapha el-Khalfi responded angrily when Reporters Without Borders put Morocco in place 130 on their press freedom index. That’s five places below South Sudan, where a civil war is raging. The RWB report didn’t reflect the reality on the ground, steps forward were being made, responded el-Khalifi.

Soon, he was proven wrong.

A few days after his words a French camera team was expelled for working without a permit on the abortion issue – although the French say they asked for the permit. Since then, at least three Moroccan journalists were sentenced to jail-time. Hicham Mansouri who is scheduled to be released on the 17 January, Hamid al Mahdaoui and cartoonist Khalid Gueddar. A fourth journalist, Hamid El Mahdaouy, was sentenced to a fine and he was ordered to temporarily close down his website.

On top of that, well-known journalist Ali Lemrabet went on hunger strike when he was denied re-entry to the kingdom after a 10-year ban. Professor and publicist Maati Monjib did the same - and collapsed - when he was not granted permission to leave the country.

And that’s just the journalists. Also this year, authorities went into a cold war with Morocco’s biggest human hights organisation AMDH by banning protests.

It expelled researchers from Amnesty International and recently it paid for a full page ad in the Wall Street Journal stating Human Rights Watch was no longer welcome. Even activists and journalists, among whom Mansouri, Monjib and online activist Hisham Almiraat, face up to five years in jail or fines. Their crime: the vague charge of "endangering the internal security of Morocco".

Morocco’s El Khafli is fencing off criticism with the new press code he is working on. This week however, the joint editors of the daily newspapers in Morocco announced they will fight the draft. Some prison sentences have been taken out of the press code, but according to the editors they are being replaced by other sanctions such as heavy fines, taking away press cards and a ban on working as journalists for up to 10 years.

Morocco the exception

Morocco has positioned itself in the role of stable and moderate exception in a troubled region, a democracy in the making. It’s true that the signs are there. There have been no recent terrorist attacks and in September elections were held without too many problems. On a yearly basis, all over the country thousands of protests are organised, the vast majority of these end in a peaceful way. People can speak their minds, if the subject is not too controversial.

The crux is in that last part of the sentence: there are unwritten boundaries to what people can ask. A country cannot claim or even strive to have freedom of speech, when at the same time authorities decide that certain subjects are off limits and that journalists and activists can be oppressed. Instead of progressing towards a transparent society, Morocco seems to be slowly backing away from it.

The question is: what triggered the crackdown? Why now? Morocco is doing quite well. Not only because of the elections, but also because - despite financial strains - it has a growing economy, prestigious solar projects, it invests heavily in West Africa and it plays a prominent role in the international fight against extremism.

The answer to the question probably lies exactly there: outside Morocco. First of all, journalists and activists in Egypt, Libya and Syria are far worse off, an excuse behind which Morocco easily hides. More importantly, the world is engaged in a fight with terrorism. Morocco is an important ally in that fight, with an effective secret service which has spies in Moroccan communities in The Netherlands, France, Belgium and Germany. The West needs Morocco.

It seems the authorities in Morocco have taken the opportunity to slowly take back some of the influence they lost after the Arab uprisings of 2011. Now is the time to suppress those who ask difficult questions; the world is turning a blind eye anyway.

- Rik Goverde is a freelance correspondent who was based in Rabat, Morocco from October 2013 to November 2015, when he was expelled from the country by Moroccon authorities.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Public protests are a common sight in Morocco. Thousands gathering at Nasr Square march towards Avenue Mohamed V during a protest against low wages, in Casablanca, on 29 November 2015. (AFP).

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