Covering social protests, a new red line for journalism

By Sam Metivier

CASABLANCA — In July 2017, Omar Radi traveled to al-Hoceima to film a documentary on al-Hirak al-Shaabi (The Popular Movement), but he never got that chance. Like dozens of journalists, the 32-year-old freelancer was arrested for attempting to cover the story that had captured the attention of all Morocco.

Radi was arrested for ‘public intoxication’ after drinking a beer at a restaurant after his eight-hour drive from Casablanca. Radi says he wasn’t drunk but that the police had monitored him waiting for him to do anything vaguely illegal, per their orders from state authorities. “If they want you in jail, they will get you in jail,” claimed Radi. They kept him behind bars for three days — just long enough for the protests to quiet.

The Hirak movement started in 2016 after fish monger Mohcine Fikri was killed in a trash compactor while attempting to retrieve fish confiscated by local authorities. His death was seen as indicative of larger issues plaguing the Rif: unfair treatment from the state in terms of corruption, abuse and development, as well as a lack of opportunity in work and education. Led by Nasser Zefzazi, the non-violent protest demanded a university and a hospital, as well as fairer treatment from the state. Tens of thousands took to the streets to make their voices heard. Morocco responded by militarizing the region to counter what they deemed a violent separatist movement funded by foreign backers.

According to Reporters Without Borders, Morocco is rated 135th of 180 countries in press freedom. Journalists face blacklisting, fines or even arrest if they cover topics that transgress the infamous ‘red lines’: the King’s authority in Morocco, the royal family, Islam, and Morocco’s claim to the disputed Western Sahara. Those red lines are now expanding. Among other topics now off limits, it is evident that Morocco will no longer tolerate coverage of social unrest.

Those who attempted to publicize the Hirak movement were met with swift retribution  by the state. Radi was one of four professional journalists who were arrested for covering the protests. The others, Rabie al-Ablaq, Mohamed al-Asrihi and Hamid al-Mahdaoui, were tried and convicted to three-to-five years in prison in June 2018. Six citizen journalists were also arrested and sentenced, along with 45 other activists.

Ablaq, a journalist for online outlet El-Badil, was sentenced to five years for “incitement to undermine the internal security of the state,” TelQuel reported. Asrihi, a video journalist and director of website Rif24, was sentenced to three years in prison for “participating in unauthorized demonstrations” and “claiming to be a journalist without having acquired the necessary accreditation,” according to CPJ. Both were local journalists who published video coverage of the protests online. Radi later made a documentary from their footage.

Mahdaoui, an editor and reporter at El-Badil, was arrested after filming a protest in al-Hoceima on July 20th 2017. He was sentenced in June 2018 to three years in prison for “failing to report a threat to internal state security” after a Dutch-Moroccan had told him military weapons were being smuggled to Hoceima to arm protestors, information Mahdaoui did not take seriously. Mahdaoui, a known critic of the state, now sits in silence in a Casablanca prison despite international calls for his release.

The state had claimed the Hirak movement was violent and separatist, but because of the videos Asrihi and Mahdaoui, among others, posted on Facebook and other social media, the greater Moroccan public saw the truth. By preventing  local journalists from covering what is happening — whether that’s because they’re in prison, prevented from accessing the region, or because they’re afraid of being arrested — the authorities quashed the story.

Editors don’t even want to dispatch journalists to the Rif because  if they publish something the state doesn’t want published, they may lose advertising revenue in a sensitive political economy. Radi, for example, has been blacklisted in Morocco because his byline is enough for advertising companies to end agreements with whoever publishes him. Such is the struggle for a journalist who has built a reputation on investigative reporting on state and private corruption. 

Nor is it easier for foreign journalists to cover protests or other sensitives topics  in Morocco. In recent years, they too have been severely limited. More than 40 internationals have been arrested and deported between 2016 and 2018 in the Rif region, most under the charges of violating their travel visa. (Because it is hard to obtain a journalist visa and to work freely once one has been flagged by the state, many journalists enter the country as tourists).

But those who most often break stories, and bear the brunt of state repression, are local journalists trying to cover news the authorities would rather smother.

In the far reaches of Morocco, local journalism is crucial for getting out stories that could never be covered by the vast majority of outlets based in Rabat or Casablanca.

“It’s a threat for the state to promote local journalism because everybody understands what’s happening in ‘deep’ Morocco,” Radi said. In recent years, this has includes protest and unrest not only in the Rif but in far-flung towns such as Jerrada and Zagora.

Just as elsewhere in the world, local independent journalism in Morocco already struggles with shoestring budgets and limited readership. According to Hicham Houdaïfa, a 49-year-old investigative journalist and co-founder of publishing house En Toute Lettres, certain stories cannot be covered without the work of local journalists. “In Hoceima, it’s because of them we had all the information we had access to,” Houdaïfa said. “Because of their work, because of their engagement, because they gave us the inside story, they permitted someone like Omar Radi to do his job.”

While Ablaq, Asrihi and Mahdaoui were convicted to up to five years in prison, Radi said he was able to get out of jail in only three days and avoid prosecution because of international support that is available to few in the field. “[Local journalists] are not well connected with NGOs and journalist protection organizations,” Radi explained. “When you work in Arabic, you are more vulnerable than French-speaking or English-speaking people because you are more local and you don’t have those Western connections.”

Houdaïfa and Radi have connections and reputations that mean they can publicize any harassment they face, and expect some international mobilization. . Local journalists don’t have that, which is why Houdaïfa stresses that they need to work together to help their more vulnerable counterparts. “My duty as a known journalist is to be at his side, to publicize his story, to do as much as possible to not let him feel alone,” Houdaïfa said.

But both Radi and Houdaifa aren’t confident that much international pressure will be brought to bear over freedom of the press here. Morocco is a valuable ally to the United States and Europe for their role in counter-terrorism and migration control, and the West may not want to jeopardize their friendship over minor human rights violations.

“If they don’t care about Jamal Khashoggi,” Houdaifa quipped, referring to the famous Saudi journalist murdered in 2018,  “why should they care about three journalists arrested in Morocco?”