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Morocco witnesses new blows to press freedom under Covid-19 securitisation

June 22, 2020 at 1:00 pm

A general view of empty Hassan Mosque and it’s surroundings during curfew as a precaution against the new type of coronavirus (COVID-19) in Rabat, Morocco on 1 April 2020. [Jalal Morchidi – Anadolu Agency]

Morocco seems to have been successful in preventing a major outbreak three months after announcing the first two Covid-19 infections. The success of the lockdown has been described as without match in Africa. Although the swift measures taken were commonly perceived as effective, their use to basically shrink the space for dissent and freedom of speech is equally noteworthy.

Under the medical emergency, transgressing the lockdown has led to harsh penalties. Hundreds of thousands of citizens have been arrested for breaking the lockdown rules, even though the economic crisis, dwindling incomes and the coronavirus hitting overcrowded areas hardest are genuine reasons for people to leave their homes for the simple matter of survival. Ironically, when the authorities overreact, police stations are crammed with detainees, and the potential for infection increases dramatically. In this way, the health lockdown is securitised further.

On 11 June, a man in his fifties committed suicide due to the hunger crisis exacerbated by the pandemic-related constraints. The message he left on a piece of cardboard revealed inconsistent state assistance. It raised the empathy, sympathy and anger of many Moroccans, regardless of the ongoing investigation into its authenticity.

READ: Despite drastic measures, Covid-19 exposes educational inequalities in Morocco 

Meanwhile, legislation has been rejected which claimed to be essential in the fight against fake news on social media. It was, though, a Trojan horse for some politicians to smother freedom of speech. Grabbing the consensus over confinement measures, and the public focus on lockdown developments, the Bill included heavy fines and prison terms for boycotting certain consumables. This meant that even when a product is rotten, out-of-date or too expensive, one cannot denounce it openly or call for a boycott of the company involved. Luckily, the resultant social media outcry has led to the Bill being put on hold.

Moreover, since 22 March, the printing and distribution of newspapers has been suspended until further notice. Media outlets have been encouraged to publish online editions, yet the experience of media pay-walls is a fiasco, given the high price of bandwidth, the ubiquity of free online content, the lack of training on digital content production, and the drastic imbalance in media ownership. As a result, big media corporations will survive, while the small outlets, which often spread less fake news and encourage investigative journalism, are doomed to failure. Their critical voices risk being lost.

More telling about the arbitrary nature of the police and judiciary are the circumstances of Slimane Raissouni’s arrest. On 22 May the editor-in-chief of the daily Akhbar Alyaoum was arrested near his house in Casablanca on charges of sexual assault. A few days earlier, a young man used a pseudonym and posted an allegation on Facebook that Raissouni attempted rape in 2018.

A Moroccan health ministry worker disinfects a street in the capital Rabat on April 9, 2020 during the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic crisis. (Photo by FADEL SENNA / AFP) (Photo by FADEL SENNA/AFP via Getty Images)

A Moroccan health ministry worker disinfects a street in the capital Rabat on 9 April 2020 during the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic crisis [FADEL SENNA/AFP]

However, regular followers know about print skirmishes between Raissouni and state-linked media. His op-eds usually, if not always, level criticism at state, especially security, institutions. A couple of days before his imprisonment, he criticised the arrests of lockdown-breakers. Earlier, Raissouni had accused some people on Facebook – without being too specific – of plotting against him for homosexuality. Though he deleted his posts, his incarceration was almost immediate.

Commentators consider the episode to be a further attack on press freedom. Raissouni is the third such case from Akhbar Alyaoum alone, which is a critical voice in the Moroccan media landscape. Hajar Raissouni, working for the same newspaper, faced trial on charges of premarital sex and an illegal abortion. After a public outcry, she was “pardoned” by the monarch. In 2019, Taoufik Bouachrine, a previous editor-in-chief of Akhbar Alyaoum, was handed a 15-year jail term for human trafficking, abuse of power for sexual purposes, rape and attempted rape.

Some observers have highlighted the latest scandal’s timing. Raissouni was arrested on a Friday afternoon, right before the end of Ramadan. Instead of sending a search warrant, the authorities chose the weekend and the Eid festival for his arrest, which would divert public attention from his interrogation. Moreover, he was arrested during a pandemic, during which 5,654 prisoners have been granted exceptional royal pardons to minimise Covid-19 infections behind bars.

READ: Morocco-Spain cooperation is unavoidable, despite territorial overlapping 

The defamation campaign against Slimane Raissouni has created more public doubts. One state-linked outlet revealed the arrest beforehand, another was allowed to film the arrest itself, while many scrutinised his personal life for scandals.

Since sexual allegations involving outspoken figures is anything but novel in Morocco, the episode prompted mixed reactions. Hesitation, caution and silence have dominated, while some have criticised the rush to dismiss the attempted rape allegation, creating doubts in people’s minds about uncomfortable truths or fabricated charges. Doubt itself then becomes a strategy to hide the truth.

How can the media be a fourth estate without criticism and investigation? Guilt or innocence should rely on solid grounds, if Moroccans are to trust the legitimacy of the legal processes. Detention regardless of compliance with constitutional rights and laws, makes the process superficial at best, and arbitrary at worst. Continuing such practices not only blights the success of the Covid-19 lockdown measures, but also the promises made by the politicians, the police and the judiciary.

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