Any journalist in Morocco today who has the courage to criticise the illegal occupation of Western Sahara, Africa’s last colony, is now facing a prison sentence and a massive fine. The harsh penalties under the new emergency decree are specifically designed to silence the government’s critics. Journalists criticising either the King, or the occupation of Western Sahara, now face two to five years in prison, and a fine between US$2-10,000 – a penalty which is in complete violation of international law. Not even journalists who operated in apartheid South Africa faced such draconian measures to silence them, which is indicative of the desperation of the Moroccan government to control the narrative surrounding the repression in its illegally occupied territory.
The suppression of freedom of expression in Morocco hit international headlines this week as the much anticipated trial of the young female journalist Nazha El Khalidi was expected to start on Monday. The trial was postponed until June 24th, but Khalidi’s case has thrust Morocco’s human rights abuses back into the limelight, casting a dark shadow over the country’s pretense to be a tolerant, modern African country. What emerges is a government that cannot tolerate any form of dissent and peaceful expression of opinion, particularly when it relates to the situation in Western Sahara.
In December last year Khalidi was arrested in occupied Western Sahara as she recorded on her phone a peaceful women’s demonstration, and live streamed it on facebook . The demonstration took place at the same time as talks between the Polisario Front and Morocco had begun in Geneva. Saharawis had come out onto the streets to peacefully express their support for the resolution of the conflict. Within minutes of Khalidi live streaming her footage of the demonstration, the police grabbed and beat her, and she was taken to a police station where she claims she was interrogated for hours. Her camera and memory card were permanently confiscated. According to Human Rights Watch, Morocco regularly tries to criminalize and silence citizen journalists, who regularly face arbitrary arrest, ill treatment, torture and prison for their work.
Khalidi is a reporter for a Western Sahara TV station in exile called RASD-TV, and is a member of the video group Equipe Media. Khalidi was charged under a section of Morocco’s penal code that forbids “claiming or using a title associated with a profession that is regulated by law…without meeting the necessary conditions to use it.” Those found guilty face a prison sentence of three months up to two years. This section of the penal code is intended to ensure that unqualified people do not claim to be professionals – such as doctors for example – when they do not have the requisite credentials. But the government is using this law to silence critics of its policies or occupation of Western Sahara.
By using this section of the penal code against journalists, Morocco is failing to uphold its obligations under international human rights law – whereby it is obligated to respect the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas. Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which has been ratified by Morocco, guarantees the right of freedom of expression. The Human Rights Committee, which interprets the treaty, has clearly said that “the general State systems of registration or licensing of journalists” are incompatible with freedom of expression.
The charges brought against Khalidi was the first time that the Moroccan authorities have used this form of prosecution against a Sahrawi media activist, which sets a dangerous precedent and signals a total clampdown on freedom of expression. The Deputy Middle East and North Africa Director at Human Rights Watch, Eric Goldstein, has criticised Morocco’s violation of the right to convey information and commentary freely by saying, “People who speak out peacefully should never have to fear prison for ‘pretending’ to be journalists.”
Since Khalidi was charged in December last year, other journalists who have published video reports about protests have also been prosecuted. Last month the Casablanca appeals court confirmed the conviction of at least two journalists for ‘usurping the title of a journalist,” after they reported on protests. The Director of the news website Rif 24 was sentenced to five years in prison, and the Director of Awar TV was sentenced to three years. Three members of Equipe Media are also imprisoned in Moroccan jails, and are serving sentences of six, 20, and 25 years.
Young journalists like Khalidi are now carrying out their work of documenting human rights violations by filming from rooftops in order to avoid being detained by the authorities. Despite the fact that all her brothers have been tortured by the state and she may be sentenced to two years in jail at the age of 26, Khalidi and other brave young women in the occupied Western Sahara are refusing to be silenced.
Shannon Ebrahim is the Foreign Editor for the Independent Media Group.