Dirty tricks: How Morocco’s well-oiled system of repression operates to crush independent journalism
On 28 July 2022, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a damning report documenting the deceptive and twisted methods by which the Moroccan regime silences and incarcerates human rights activists and independent journalists it views as opponents. The 99-page report explained in detail the methodology used by the Moroccan authorities to crush their critics.
One major pillar of this system rests on fabricating criminal charges against dissident activists and critical journalists in order to give them lengthy prison sentences. These sentences will be issued after unfair trials that fail to abide by the basic standards that should be upheld in accordance with Morocco's own laws and constitution.
The many procedural weaknesses – according to the report – included prolonged pretrial detention without justification; preventing defendants from accessing their casefiles for long periods of time; refusing requests by the defence to hear and interrogate witnesses; and issuing sentences to imprisoned defendants in their absence after the police fail to bring them to the courtroom to attend their own trials.
"On 28 July 2022, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a damning report documenting the deceptive and twisted methods by which the Moroccan regime silences and incarcerates human rights activists and independent journalists it views as opponents"
On 31 August 2019, six plainclothes police officers arrested Akhbar al-Youm newspaper journalist Hajar Raissouni on a street in Rabat just minutes after she left an appointment at an obstetrics-gynecology clinic. The police returned Hajar to the clinic and accused her of having had an illegal abortion, which she denied.
Hajar was then taken to Rabat's Ibn Sina Hospital, where she was subjected to a forced gynaecological examination without her consent, amounting to sexual violence and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment under international human rights standards, as HRW clarifies.
The court accused Hajar of abortion and sex outside marriage, and sentenced her and her fiancé to one year in prison. The doctor in charge of the clinic was sentenced to two years. Due to huge outcry this verdict provoked both within Morocco and internationally, on 16 October 2019, she, her fiancé and the doctor all received a royal pardon from the king.
According to Hajar, most of the questions directed at her by police officers during her arrest were unrelated to the charges she faced. Instead, they mainly focussed on her uncles - religious scholar Ahmed Raissouni and journalist Sulaimane Raissouni: both known critics of the monarchy. The latter, former editor-in-chief of Akhbar Al-Youm, was also arrested after being accused of "sexual assault" following a media-led smear campaign against him, and was sentenced to five years in prison.
In fact, he spent eight months in prison without any charges being brought against him, and he wasn't allowed to see the formal charge until 11 months after his imprisonment. Most human rights organisations are calling for his release and that an investigation be opened into the legal violations that occurred in his case.
By investigating several examples and examining 12 court cases, HRW's report shows that there has been a dramatic shift in the kind of charges being levelled against critics of the regime. In the past, authorities would accuse dissident activists of "insulting symbols of the kingdom" and "harming state security". Today, most charges revolve around "consensual sexual relations", or fabricated charges of rape, human trafficking, sexual assault and money laundering.
"In the past, political trials "gave enhanced status to Moroccan dissidents, turned them into heroes, and mobilised public opinion around them. If they are considered traitors, thieves and rapists, this is a better way to silence them"
It is agreed unanimously by many major human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists, that these charges are fabricated, and are primarily aimed at the character assassination of the target: to discredit them and isolate them from public support.
In this vein, historian and journalist Maati Monjib believes that in the past, political trials "gave enhanced status to Moroccan dissidents, turned them into heroes, and mobilised public opinion around them. If they are considered traitors, thieves and rapists, this is a better way to silence them".
In its war on freedom of the press, expression and opinion, the Moroccan regime also relies on the "weaponisation" of the media. Pro-regime newspapers and media outlets launch concerted smear campaigns against targeted journalists and activists accusing them of being "traitors to the homeland", "seeking to destabilise the country" and "communicating with foreign states".
Oftentimes the "defamatory press", as it has been dubbed by Moroccan activists, will try to blackmail targets by threatening to publish sexually compromising images and videos of them, which are often fabricated.
In December 2020, the Chouf TV's website (a channel which brags of its close ties to the regime) published sexually explicit photos and videos of Mohamed Ziane (79)—former Moroccan Human Rights Minister and head of the bar in Rabat, in the company of former police officer, Ouahiba Khourchech. Khourchech was known for criticizing the security services, after being subjected to repeated intimidation after protesting harassment by her boss at work. Ziane said the video was faked, and its main objective appeared to be to pressure him and Khourchech to stop criticising the regime.
In February 2020, an unknown person sent six short videos via Whatsapp to several relatives of Fouad Abdelmoumni, the democracy activist and former head of the Moroccan branch of Transparency International (known for his criticism of the royal palace). These videos included intimate scenes between Abdelmoumni and his fiancée. Abdelmoumni said the cameras that had recorded the videos had been planted inside the air conditioning units in the bedroom and living room of his apartment.
Media defamation increases self-censorship among many journalists and writers, and spreads fear among the human rights defending community, who deem it a warning. The target has two options when faced with a defamation campaign. They can continue to criticise the regime and write freely, thus increasing the risk of arrest on trumped-up charges, an intensification of the smear campaign and gross violations of their right to privacy; or they can stop expressing their views permanently, compromising their positions to align with what is deemed acceptable by the ruling regime so as to avoid any action that could lead to imprisonment or character assassination.
"Morocco's repressive regime no longer limits itself to the classic tools of repression in its war on independent journalists and opposition activists. Instead, it has adopted similar methods to those used by Tunisia’s former dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali - based on fabricating sexual and financial charges and smearing individuals using its pro-regime defamation press"
Morocco's authoritarian government also uses digital surveillance to hack the phones of journalists and activists, and the Pegasus spyware (produced by Israeli group NSO) is an example of this. The cyberware can eavesdrop on calls, obtain passwords, read text messages and emails, as well as hack cameras, microphones and track locations.
According to investigations by Amnesty International, Forbidden Stories, and research by the Citizen Lab at Toronto University, Morocco has used Pegasus to spy on dozens of journalists and civil society activists; the most prominent of them Hajar Raissouni, Fouad Abdelmoumni, Sulaimane Raissouni, Omar Radi, Taoufik Bouachrine, Abou-Bakr Jamai, Maati Monjib, Hassan Benajeh and the author of this article.
In summary, the report highlights how Morocco's repressive regime no longer limits itself to the classic tools of repression in its war on independent journalists and opposition activists. Instead, it has adopted similar methods to those used by Tunisia’s former dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali - based on fabricating sexual and financial charges and smearing individuals using its pro-regime defamation press, in order to spread a debilitating fear of the regime among high-profile and independent voices.
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
Article translated from Arabic by Rose Chacko.
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