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Solidarity swells in Morocco after crackdown on free expression

Moroccan journalist Omar Radi has been released pending trial in March, but other YouTubers, rappers and students remain in jail for criticizing the king and the regime.
Demonstrators shoot slogans and hold a banner showing a portrait of Omar Radi, a Moroccan journalist detained over tweet criticising judge, during a demonstration, on December 28, 2019, in the city of Rabat. (Photo by STR / AFP) (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Omar Radi was in good spirits, mostly.

The Moroccan journalist had just been let out of a Casablanca jail on New Year’s Eve, five days after being arrested for criticizing a judge on Twitter. His freedom was uncertain pending a second trial in March, but the flood of public support for him and other political prisoners made things lighter. 

A week later, sitting in a packed press conference alongside human rights defenders and lawyers, he lambasted the Moroccan regime for imprisoning citizens for expressing themselves. 

After the press left, he hung around with friends, chatting and laughing. Radi, an affable 33-year-old, has eager eyes and a gentle face that scrunches up when he laughs. “I’m hopeful for my trial — I don’t think I’m going back to jail,” he told Al-Monitor. “But I don’t know. We’ll see how things evolve.”

Radi’s arrest was part of a recent muzzling of Moroccans who use the internet to voice dissent against the monarchy and ruling elite. Some 16 others have also been arrested on similar charges since October, including a famous rapper and YouTubers as well as several high schoolers, activists and journalists. Most have been sentenced to prison time. 

Prosecutors charged Radi with insulting a public servant. In a tweet from April 2019, he condemned a judge, Lahcen Tolfi, as an “executioner” for the state after giving 20-year prison sentences to protesters in the incendiary protest movement known as Hirak al-Rif. “No forgetting or forgiving these undignified officials,” he wrote. 

Police took Radi in for questioning soon after but ultimately let him go. Both his arrest and his eight-month wait for a trial raised eyebrows. Some speculated that it was a reaction to his recent visit to Algeria, where he discussed Morocco’s appropriation of tribal land in a radio interview. His work exposing corruption and documenting protests has earned him respect from his peers and hostility from the government. 

Morocco trumpets itself as a progressive exception in the Middle East and North Africa region, but activists say the recent crackdown suggests otherwise. “Morocco is a police state like never before,” Radi told Mediapart on Jan. 7. The arrests have sparked a broad wave of solidarity demanding freedom for all prisoners of conscience.

“When there is repression, of course, opposition retreats. But when repression grows, society reorganizes to resist,” Radi told Al-Monitor. “That’s what’s happening today. We are at a very interesting moment in the history of Morocco.” 

Despite some reforms since 2011, the state is still under the thumb of King Mohammed VI and offers citizens little political power. Unemployment is high, political corruption and abuses of police power are widespread and social services are lacking. In many ways, Moroccans feel the country does not belong to them and they are saying so more clearly than ever. 

Abdelali Bahmad, an unemployed college graduate also known as Bouda Ghassan, was arrested in December for joking on Facebook that he “could not afford to buy matches to burn the Moroccan flag when he is hungry.” He was charged with insulting the flag but his supporters insist his prosecution was “revenge against his political positions” as an activist.

Mohammed Sekkaki, a YouTuber known as Moul Kaskita, was given four years in prison after posting a long rant in which he called Moroccans “stupid” and “asses” and mocked the king. 

Rapper Mohamed Mounir, known as L’Gnawi, is now serving one year in prison, officially for insulting the police but more likely for his song “Long Live the People,” which criticizes the king and his advisers. High school student Ayoub Mahfoud was sentenced to three years in prison for posting the lyrics of the song on Facebook. 

“This type of repression doesn’t mean that the regime is strong,” Khadiye Ryadi, former president of Morocco Association for Human Rights (AMDH), told Al-Monitor. “On the contrary — it means it’s very weak and very afraid. If it were strong, it would not worry about a child who posted song lyrics on Facebook.”

“People have come to understand the gravity of the situation,” Radi said. “It means, well, you have nothing to lose.”

While 2011 Arab Spring protesters elsewhere explicitly targeted state leaders, in Morocco, few people in the streets chanted “down with the king,” said Ahmed Benchemsi, the regional communications director of Human Rights Watch and the founder of the Tel Quel newspaper. “Now, there’s more and more criticism geared toward the head of state directly.” This bold, desperate finger-pointing may be why the state is “getting more nervous,” he speculated. 

Before, dissenters would be detained on unrelated charges, but now “people are indicted directly for expressing their views,” he added. “Maybe it means the government wants to send a message: We won’t try to pretend that … freedom of speech reigns. No, we’re telling you: Don’t talk.”

Responding to similar claims, government spokesman Hassan Abyaba told AFP, “The human rights situation is experiencing no decline in Morocco,” and that observers have to “distinguish those who speak freely from those who commit crimes punished by the law." Insulting the king is a constitutional crime. 

“The regime is afraid of social media,” said Ryadi of ADMH. “It remembers that the February 20 movement [of 2011] came out because of social media. It knows that it is the only space that remains for political debate and critique.” 

State-aligned newspapers are campaigning to defame activists and shut down hashtags, she said. The hashtag #FreeKoulchi (#FreeEveryone) is circulating widely on Moroccan social media, used for everyone from jailed journalists to soccer fans imprisoned for raising political banners.

Morocco does not explicitly censor social media like Iran and China do. But, Radi said, “In 2004, if someone asked if Morocco would return to putting people in prison for making a song, we would have said no. But now, we see that … anything is possible.”

After Radi’s arrest, a group of journalists, scholars and activists formed a support committee. Unlike many other detainees, he is a public figure and gregarious urbanite who wields international clout. Hundreds of supporters protested in December in front of Rabat’s parliament and elsewhere, including Paris and Brussels.

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