The Moroccan Monarchy’s War on Journalism

Hardly covered in English-language media, Morocco’s image abroad is usually set by vapidly laudatory puff pieces and its photogenic tourist sites. The social reality of its inhabitants tells another story. With a Human Development Index score near the bottom of the Arab world, an illiteracy rate above 26%, and approximately 80% of its workforce toiling informally, the North African kingdom provides distinctly un-Instagram-able conditions of life for its disenfranchised majority. Politically, the Moroccan state likes to present itself as a dependably tolerant and reformist regime. In reality, it is currently waging a fiercely illiberal campaign against journalists who expose the economic corruption and malfeasance of the royal palace and its crony elite. This campaign has pioneered a new muzzling strategy which avoids direct political trials of opponents, in favor of tabloid smearing and spurious accusations of impropriety. This repression is being meted out in a frantic attempt to marginalize any remaining credible critical voices, as reigning king Mohammad VI careens towards an impasse not unlike those which led to uprisings in other Arab countries last year.

Caught at the height of this final assault on freedom of expression is Maati Monjib, a pro-democracy activist and among Morocco’s most preeminent modern historians. He has long been in regime cross-hairs due to his critical scholarship, principled political interventions, and intransigent intellectual independence.

A stalwart veteran of the Moroccan left and one of its only spokespeople with a profile abroad, Monjib has had to spend much time under the scrutiny of Morocco’s politicized courts. An international appeal saved Monjib’s life in 2015 by ending his 24-day hunger strike protesting the imposition of a travel ban meant to prevent him from speaking about Morocco to international audiences. Scurrilous judicial harassment has since never ceased, and in October of this year Monjib was charged with “money laundering” on unconvincing grounds. In a country whose metropolitan skylines consist of tacky high-rises universally known to launder the ill-begotten fortunes of the elite, the idea that the personal property of a modest academic such as Monjib is worthy of the attention of the king’s prosecutor is risible. Previously brandishing directly political prosecutions, this change of tack is indicative of the Moroccan state’s current strategy. Reached at home in the capital Rabat, Monjib says, “In the past, an independent or dissident journalist was granted the ‘honor’ of a political accusation: violating entities deemed religiously sacred or threatening the integrity of the state, etc. Today, their reputation is tarnished first, subsequently leading to imprisonment.”

Following the announcement of this prosecution, which had already been leaked to state-aligned media, state security services have begun to harass his family members, including setting up round-the-clock police watches on their homes. “My family is being pushed into settling political scores that they have nothing to do with,” says Monjib, who undertook a three-day hunger strike beginning October 12 to protest his family’s harassment. “I do not like having to use my health as a means to defend myself and my family,” he explains, “I am diabetic and suffer from heart disease and muscle wasting, and all this puts my life in danger when I go on hunger strike. But they have not stopped harassing me and my family since 2015, when I was accused of ‘harming the internal integrity of the state’ due to training journalists.”

In the meantime, Monjib finds it increasingly difficult to puncture the slime of regime-affiliated media to respond to the barrage of defamation. With almost no independent outlets left to publish in, Monjib describes another aspect of the regime’s pressure on critical voices: “Ten years ago, the technique shifted from the closure of press institutions to the individual targeting of every journalist. For example, as an independent opinion writer, I do not have a newspaper that will be closed, but my writings will attract painful defamation by the security services and the judiciary.”

If the monarchy succeeds in depriving Monjib’s voice of a public outlet he will be joining a cohort of distinguished journalists and pro-democracy activists who have either been put behind bars or pushed into exile in the last few years. All have been dragged through the mud of the state-aligned tabloid press and subsequently arraigned on supposedly non-political, moralistic grounds. In Monjib’s case the charges are financial, but, as he puts it, amidst a profoundly conservative, patriarchal society, “moral accusations have become the method because they muddy the waters of public opinion, especially in a society, of course, not without sexual and discriminatory attacks against women.” While it goes without saying that all accusations of sexual violence deserve impartial and transparent review and justice if guilt is proven, there is compelling evidence that the accusations detailed below are part of a concerted, cynical MeToo-washing strategy with a thinly-disguised trail leading to political authorities.

Given the vacuum of independent media in the country, different Moroccan state agencies have cultivated a symbiosis with a craven and philistine media ecology funded by the Casablanca-based economic rentier class. Presided over by the social media-based ChoufTV, the most-watched media outlet in North Africa, owned by regime insider Driss Chahtane (himself imprisoned, and later personally pardoned by the king, for having violated the taboo of reporting on the king’s poor health), these outlets are a crucial link in the state’s smear campaigns. Their cynical click-bait, which promises salacious between-the-sheets gossip about journalists and activists it portrays as debauched dilettantes, picks up scoops from state insiders, and uses them to set the stage and justification for the victims’ arrest and detention.

In 2015, the same year as Maati Monjib’s successful hunger strike forced the authorities to lift extra-legal prohibition of his travel, Hicham Mansouri was among the first Moroccan journalists to face this sex-scandal machine. A colleague and friend of Monjib’s, Mansouri had already been viciously beaten up while under police surveillance for his investigative reporting on internet surveillance. His research ran further afoul of the authorities after he detected malware associated with state intelligence used to spy on journalists. Within days the security services found their opportunity – Mansouri’s home was raided by the police minutes after a female friend came to visit. The police attempted to force him and his friend to remove their clothes and arrange themselves in compromising photos. At the widely-denounced trial, these photos were used to convict Mansouri of adultery, a crime in Morocco, along with a ridiculous charge of having ‘managed a brothel’, for which he served 10 months in jail. He is now in exile in France.

Following the modest success of this defamation model, the coming years saw its full deployment marshaled to repress a major challenge to the regime – the pro-democracy Hirak uprising, which raised radical social and political demands in Morocco’s northern Rif region in 2016 and 2017. In addition to dealing out harsh sentences to the activists, the state has targeted journalists whose coverage of the movement was at all sympathetic. One outlet whose independent coverage of the events marked it and its writers out as targets was the daily newspaper Akhbar Alyoum.

In February 2018, the newspaper’s offices were raided and its publisher, Taoufik Bouchrine, who was at the time preparing an exposé on the bugging of the newspaper’s offices, was arrested and charged with a volley of crimes, mostly sexual in nature. The evidence for Bouchrine’s alleged offenses was predictably dubious, with many of his supposed victims retracting their “confessions”, fleeing the country, and refusing to appear in court. Afaf Bernani, a journalist and one of the women whom police tried to force to testify against Bouchrine by abducting and threatening her, was herself jailed for six months for renouncing her forced testimony. She is now in exile in Tunisia. The profoundly compromised trial found Bouchrine guilty and sentenced him to 12 years in prison, a sentence that was gratuitously later lengthened to 15 years on appeal. In an absurd flourish, among other indictments during Bouchrine’s trial, the newspaper was sued by the Ministry of Interior for publishing false weather forecasts.

Next came one of Akhbar Alyoum’s prominent reporters who had covered the Hirak, Hajar Raissouni. A talented young journalist covering corruption and provision of social services, in August 2019 she was abducted by the police off the streets of Rabat, interrogated, forced to undergo a non-consensual gynecological exam, and subsequently charged with having had sex outside of marriage and an abortion, both of which are illegal in Morocco. A farcical trial led to a sentence of one year’s imprisonment amid a public atmosphere of jeering misogynistic aspersion. Nevertheless, her case occasioned widespread criticism of the kingdom’s arcane sexual statutes (under which thousands of people are prosecuted annually), even leading to thousands of Moroccan women signing a public petition declaring they too had broken the laws Raissouni stood accused of violating. Such embarrassment led to a royal pardon after some weeks in jail, and Raissouni now lives in exile in Sudan.

Unfortunately her uncle, journalist Suleiman Raissouni, also affiliated with Akhbar Alyoum, has also attracted the ire of the regime through his criticism of its secret police. Monjib explains, “Even critical journalists often avoid criticizing the security services, except for a few, and among those few is Suleiman Raissouni, editor-in-chief of Akhbar Alyoum, who had criticized the security services handling of the Corona crisis and was recently arrested on a sexual charge”. Arrested in May this year, Raissouni faces up to ten years in prison based on a semi-anonymous online accusation of rape.

But the most widely covered ongoing trial in Morocco is that of award-winning journalist Omar Radi. He writes primarily for Le Desk, one of the only other independent outlets left standing in the country. A trenchant supporter of the Hirak movement, maintaining an international profile conveying Moroccan politics to an international audience and researching the hugely corrupt process of privatization of vast tracts of public land in the country, Radi has been stalked by the security services for years. In December 2019, he was arrested and charged with insulting a judge, who had handed down heavy judgements on Hirak protestors, in a tweet earlier in the year. He was sentences to four months bail for the “offense”. Meanwhile, Amnesty International published evidence that his and Monjib’s phones had been put under coordinated surveillance, via the Israeli company NSO Group’s spyware. Upon his release, Radi was constantly summoned for further police interrogation, as well as being regularly stalked and slandered by ChoufTV and other regime-aligned media. According to Human Rights Watch, between June 7 and September 15 of this year, at least 136 articles appeared in state-affiliated media smearing Radi and his family.

On July 29 Radi was taken into ‘pre-trial detention’, pending charges of espionage and rape. The former seem, preposterously, to hinge on his journalistic contacts with members of the Dutch diplomatic mission to Morocco, the latter is based on an accusation a former coworker at Le Desk made again him in July, regarding an encounter he maintains was consensual. The ensuing “Affaire Omar Radi” has stirred up predictable public controversy, with international human rights organizations like Amnesty and HRW calling the case a familiar farce, and domestic media coverage remaining relentlessly condemnatory of Radi. As much as a fair trial is deserved by both parties, there’s no chance of it in Rabat’s courts.

Inheritor of both a centuries-old feudal absolutism and the apparatus of French colonialism, and with the assistance of its American and European patrons, the Moroccan state maintains the greatest continuity of undemocratic rule in North Africa. While this authoritarian consistency is often touted as “stability” abroad, its decrepit structure is showing its age at home. Behind the scenes, the state behavior dismantling free expression is symptomatic of a political balance of forces relying more and more on its intelligence and police services to patrol a population amongst whom it is losing hegemonic consent.

While king Mohammad VI, frequently ruling in absentia from his European properties, enjoyed something of a sunny popularity in the early years of his reign, he is increasingly regarded by much of the public with indifference. Although the royal palace unquestionably is still politically sovereign, it has come to rely heavily on the person of Abdellatif Hammouchi, unusually and unprecedentedly the director or both the regular, national police forces and the state intelligence services. Predictably a draconian and steely character, the forces under his command implicated in torture, Hammouchi has amassed considerable influence, bending the state in the direction of a hyper-securitized posture vis-a-vis civil society. Due to his considerable sway over the media, criticism of Hammouchi has become a “red line” that should not be crossed, as “the security services protect an elite that has become rich from the rentier economy and from rampant corruption,” according to Monjib. The motif of “red lines”, which put anyone who crosses them at risk of prosecution, is a constant in Morocco. Traditionally consisting of outright criticism of the monarchy, Islam, or of Morocco’s colonization of the Western Sahara, they are constantly updated to include any person or topic deemed offensive to the authorities.

On a personal note, I myself recently experienced an abbreviated form of these securitized red lines. During a discussion following a student presentation on the Moroccan annexation of the Western Sahara (a non-self-governing territory to Morocco’s south which it holds and claims, in contravention of international law), I ventured to correct a few historical errors mentioned by a student in the flush of feverish nationalism. I thought nothing of it, until my employer notified me that they had received a threatening communication from the Wilaya, quite high in the unaccountable bureaucracy, that I had been reported to the police, presumably by a student or their family, for “questioning the territorial integrity of the kingdom”. Lucky to have only received a threat, I would not have to be issued one twice.

Committing its most talented and courageous activists to jail or exile, restricting those it sees as its subjects to more intense information control than ever before, how long can the Moroccan monarchy tread historical water? Events in Thailand, pitting a similarly bloated, brittle religious monarchy against an impatient younger generation, suggest not forever. “There is great class tension around economic and social policy, and the domination of public opinion by the unelected ruling authorities,” warns Monjib. Does he see any democratic alternatives on the horizon? Hardly: “The dangerous thing is that the killing of politics, parties, civil society and the independent press puts the angry masses face to face with the actual rulers: the palace and its institutional allies among the powerful unelected elite. There is an upcoming explosion that threatens stability and it’s the people who will pay the bill. The powerful and wealthy minority have put their money abroad.”

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This post was originally published on Radio Free.