July 22, 2017 - Updated on July 23, 2017

Morocco obstructs coverage of Rif protests

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has registered many media freedom violations since the start of a wave of protests in Morocco’s northern Rif region and accuses the authorities of deliberately obstructing the Moroccan and foreign reporters who have been trying to cover the unrest.

“The situation of Moroccan and foreign journalists covering the events in northern Morocco keeps on getting worse,” said Yasmine Kacha, the head of RSF’s North Africa bureau. “By trying to prevent coverage of the Rif protests, the Moroccan authorities are gradually turning this region into a no-go zone for independent media.”

Kacha added: “RSF also calls on the Moroccan authorities to free all the citizen-journalists who have been arrested and to condemn all the physical attacks against media personnel who are just doing their job by covering these demonstrations.”

Hamid El Mahdaoui, the editor of the news website, was arrested on 20 July while filming a protest in the city of Al-Hoceïma that had been banned by the authorities a few days before. He is due to appear before the local prosecutor in a court in Al-Hoceïma today.

According to Agence France-Presse and many observers in Al-Hoceïma, Internet connections have been slowed down and have at times been cut off altogether, and the telephone network has been disrupted throughout the city, complicating the work of journalists.

Citizen-journalists detained

RSF had registered many other incidents prior to these latest ones. Since 26 May,seven citizen-journalists and media workers have been arrested in the Al-Hoceïma region in connection with their coverage of Hirak, the name given to the protest movement under way in the Rif region since last October.

One of them, Rif Press website editor Mohamed El Hilali, has already been sentenced to five months in prison on charges of “insulting police officers in the course of their work” and “demonstrating without prior authorization.” Rif Press has been shut down.

Six other citizen-journalists – Mohamed Al Asrihi and Jawad Al Sabiry of the Rif24 website, Abd Al Ali Haddou, a presenter on AraghiTV (a web TV), Rif Press photographer Houssein Al Idrissi, Fouad Assaidi, a host on AwarTV’s Facebook page, and reporter Rabiaa Al Ablak – are currently in pre-trial detention in Casablanca.

All are charged with criminal law offences rather than press law violations, according to Ahmed Ait Bennacer, a member of the lawyers’ collective that defends Hirak detainees.

“It is unacceptable that such grave charges as endangering state security are being brought against recognized and proven citizen-journalists,” Bennacer said. “Any judicial proceedings should only be brought under the press law and these citizen-journalists should meanwhile be released.”

Some of the citizen-journalists charged under the penal code are even facing the possibility of the death penalty.

Several of the detainees began a hunger strike on 17 July in protest again their arrest and the conditions in which they are being held. A report by the National Human Rights Council (CNDH) that was partially leaked referred to mistreatment and torture and said detainees were being kept in isolation.

Beaten during Rif solidarity demonstration

RSF registered two physical attacks on journalists during a demonstration in Rabat on 8 July in support of the Rif protest movement. One of the victims, Ahmed Rachid, a photographer and cameraman with the Lakome2 news website, was badly beaten while filming police dispersing demonstrators.

The other was Hicham Al Amrani, who covered the demonstration for “I was doing my job as a journalist when ten policeman approached, me, insulted me, and then kicked me and hit me with their batons,” Amrani said. “I had the impression that they treated me with even more contempt after I told them I was a journalist.”

Foreign reporters not welcome

The authorities are not just targeting Moroccan media and journalists.

Retransmission of France 24’s Arabic-language channel was banned last month. Jamal Alilat, a visiting reporter for the Algerian newspaper El Watan, was arrested and deported in late May.

Two journalists with the French newspaper L’Humanité, reporter Rosa Moussaoui and photographer Ayoub Benkarroum, were harassed by the security services while covering a demonstration in support of the Hirak detainees in Meknès on 4 July.

“The authorities spotted me as a foreign journalist when I pulled out my equipment,” Moussaoui said. “The security services took a photo of me and then followed my photographer and me, at first on foot and then with a DST [domestic intelligence agency] car.”

While on her way to cover the banned 20 July demonstration in Al Hoceïma for the French weekly Politis, freelance journalist Nadia Sweeny was stopped three times at checkpoints, where police and gendarmes requested her identity papers and asked her what she was doing in the region.

After she reached Al Hoceïma, policemen took a note of her car licence number and reported her presence to their superiors while she was interviewing Nawal Benaissa, one of the leaders of the Hirak movement.

Coverage of the Rif protests is just the latest of the media freedom problems in Morocco, where foreign reporters are often expelled for covering sensitive stories, coverage of the monarchy and Islam is off limits, and independent reporting is obstructed in Western Sahara. Morocco is ranked 133rd out of 180 countries in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index.