The Late Freedom of Expression in Morocco

The policy of openness that followed the emergence of the February 20 Movement in 2011 did not last long. Once again freedoms are curtailed, demonstrators thrown into prison, to such an extent that certain activists come to regret the last years of Hassan II’s reign.

Seen from afar, Morocco would appear to be an exception in a region troubled by the Arab revolutions of 2011. The official rhetoric, copiously relayed by the local press, certain international media and above all by a considerable share of public opinion, claims that Morocco dealt skillfully with the 2011 challenge. While the country was shaken by the 20 February Movement, King Mohamed VI announced extensive political reforms on 9 March, less than three weeks after the first street protests. In July, a new Constitution, which gave the government greater executive powers, was approved by 98% of the electorate. And in November, an early parliamentary election brought to the government an Islamist formation which had never held office, the Justice and Development Party (PJD) to power the government.

Despite these concessions, for nearly a year, the 20 February Movement pursued its street protests at a steady pace and there were intense political debates, even in the outlying regions. A hard-fought battle for freedom of speech was gradually being won and many social movements have profited from it since.

And yet, seven years on, activists who have taken part in this protest movement, unprecedented in the recent history of the country, are worried. Their achievements are a far cry from the “Moroccan exception” vaunted by the government.

“By comparison with 2011, we feel stifled”

“2011 was a moment of freedom! We feel stifled in comparison with 2011. We feel constantly watched, we feel a lot of pressure” deplores Khadija Ryadi, 2013 recipient of the UN Human Rights Prize and former president of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH).”We haven’t known anything like this in years.” The country is subjected to an especially violent wave of repression, canceling the recent advances in freedom of expression and assembly. This regression is confirmed by international NGOs. Last winter, Amnesty International denounced instances of torture—denied by the authorities—inflicted on activists of Hirak, the movement which arose in the Rif in October 2016, demanding social and economic reforms. More recently, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has pointed an accusing finger at police violence and an oppressive atmosphere which had been hindering its investigations in Jerada, a former mining town, wracked by street protests.

Moreover, in the World Press Freedom Index for 2018 compiled by Reporters Without Borders, Morrocco ranks 135th, proof of the crisis affecting journalism in the country. In recent years, all independent papers have vanished from the newsstands while the rare reporters who dare to challenge the prevailing taboos are subjected to increasingly heavy pressure. For having covered the Rif demonstrations, seven people, mostly ordinary citizens who reported the first protests, are presently behind bars along with some of the movement’s activists.

A Thousand Political Prisoners in One Year

The figures published by the AMDH are perfectly clear. Nearly one thousand people have been detained since last year for political reasons. This is something the country has not witnessed since 2003 and the wave of arrests following the Casablanca terrorist attacks1, according to Youssef Raissouni, administrative director of the AMDH. Among the prisoners there are demonstrators from the Hirak movement, others from Jerada, students from the National Union of Moroccan Students (UNEM), various people who have taken part in the social movements across the country and a few journalists.

About 800 people have been prosecuted in connection with Hirak according to Rachid Belaali of the prisoners’ defense committee. In Jerada, where the population swarmed through the streets from December to March following the deaths of two miners, some hundred people are now in jail after a demonstration was repressed in March, according to the Oujda branch of the AMDH. The arrests go on and on—but so do the releases, which makes it hard to keep track of the numbers, according to Jawad Tlemsni, from the AMDH bureau in Oujda where the trials are being held. By his count, another twenty people have been jailed in the last few days.

Meanwhile, in Casablanca, the marathon trial hearings of Hirak’s leaders continue unabated. And in El Hoceima, where Hirak began, demonstrators are receiving heavy prison sentences every day amidst almost general indifference. In May, to mark the first anniversary of the beginning of the repression, the Hirak inmates of Oukacha prison in Casablanca—among them the well-known activist from the Rif, Nasser Zefzafi—began a hunger strike to protest against their detention conditions. On Wednesday 6 June, Zefzafi began his second year of isolation, in total disregard for UN norms as HRW has pointed out.

Activists and Trade Unionists Targeted

In this context, the work of human rights activists based in Morocco has become especially difficult. Raissouni, who has been active in the protest movement since 2011, makes no bones about it: “I have much less freedom than I had in 2011.” Every day he runs into a ban on some activity as well as financial restrictions. “We can’t work the way we used to, engage in advocacy, set up training programs, organize public actions. We no longer have any room to act,” he explains. “We are not living under the rule of law. Our Constitution is not democratic [despite a few improvements in the wording]. The Makhzen2 is clever. Nothing is ever formalized and hence any progress is reversible,” he adds. Following a period of intense militancy and a renewed interest in politics among young people, after 2013 there was a gradual decline, once the 20 February Movement began to weaken. The following year, the authorities delivered an unequivocal message with a speech in Parliament by the then minister of home affairs, Mohamad Hassad. Raising the specter of terrorism, he claimed that certain associations had an agenda dictated from abroad. “Pretending to be working in favor of human rights”, they might be a danger to national security. Since then, NGOs, but also trade unions have had difficulties organizing public activities, hiring halls and obtaining the official documents legalizing their existence.

A Sharp Decline of Liberties

Over the last four years 140 activities organized by the AMDH have been banned, according to Raissouni. The association has about 100 sections and 60 of these, including their offices in Rabat, Casablanca, Marrakesh, Tangiers, Kenitra and Sale have not even been able to obtain a registration certificate when filing documents that they must legally provide, Raissouni adds. In Oujda, where the board members were renewed last March, the local authorities have refused to register the changes, Jawad Tlemsani tells us. A former member of the UNEM, Tlemsani, 26, belongs to the Unified Socialist Party and has witnessed the birth of a genuine culture of protest over the last few years. But despite this undeniable progress, he denounces a sharp decline in liberties. From his vantage point in Oujda he has seen the mobilization dwindle and fear develop among the population of Jerada where two more miners died at the beginning of June. Street protests have become few and far between. Only an occasional sit-in, often declared on the spur of the moment, will occur in a limited number of neighborhoods.

While this confrontation with the authorities goes on, Khadija Ryadi looks to the past. This crisis is so unprecedented and so profound that she and other activists find themselves regretting getting their hopes up following the progress made in the 1990s and the lure of the democratic overtures initiated towards the end of the reign of Hassan II. “The nineties were the best time. In 2011, it was different, it was very short. In the nineties there was real freedom of speech,” she maintains. “From 1992 to 2001 was the only time there was investigative journalism, freedom of association. Public space was expanded, there were real political debates. Nowadays, if anybody says a word, if the press opens a debate, people go to jail. There are no more debates, everything is locked down.”

1EDITOR’S NOTE: A series of suicide bombings on 16 May 2003, carried out by some ten men from the Sidi Mounen shantytown, killing 41 persons and wounding about a hundred of others. A “Morrocan 9/11” which triggered a political crisis and a major security crackdown.

2Central power.