After a 10-year ban and a hunger strike, one Moroccan journalist is getting back to work

September 11, 2015

In the courtyard of his 19th century Andalusian house among the winding alleyways of the city of Tetouan, in Morocco’s verdant Rif Mountains, journalist Ali Lmrabet, 55, types slowly on his laptop, which sits atop a pile of notebooks on a wooden table. Writing an article on Moroccan history for a local magazine, Lmrabet pauses every few moments and stares upwards, as if waiting for the right word to come from the sky.

Lmrabet is back doing journalism in Morocco now for the first time since 2005, when a court found him guilty of defamation, barred him from practicing his profession, and fined him $5,000. In an interview earlier that year with the editors of a Moroccan weekly newspaper, Al Moustakil, Lmrabet had declared that Western Saharans who have been living in camps in neighboring Algeria since Moroccan forces invaded their country are refugees. While there is no law against making such comments, Lmrabet’s words drew a lawsuit from Ahmed Khar, the spokesman for a pro-Moroccan NGO, who said that Lmrabet’s words caused him great pain. Khar’s civil suit was filed only a week after Lmrabet applied for government approval to reopen his newspaper, Demain, known for its unfavorable stance towards the Moroccan monarchy. While the 10-year ban on practicing journalism was the most significant imposed on a Moroccan journalist for defamation at the time, others have since faced even heavier fines.

To many observers, Lmrabet’s claim about the refugees might seem obvious, but it contradicts the official line in Morocco, which has occupied the resource-rich Western Sahara, to its south, since Spanish colonists relinquished the territory in 1975. Morocco has been fighting pro-independence rebels in Western Sahara ever since, and the conflict has displaced thousands into neighboring Algeria and Mauritania. The Moroccan government calls them “self-exiles,” and blames their flight on the rebels, known as POLISARIO. Calling the Western Saharans “refugees” in public discourse is taboo in Morocco because it implies that they were forced to flee by the occupying Moroccan military.

Between 2005 and April 11, when Lmrabet’s 10-year sentence expired, he rented out his home as a travellers’ guesthouse and wrote for publications outside Morocco to get by. Now the former diplomat-turned-investigative-journalist wants to get back to work, but the environment remains hostile to journalists doing critical reporting in Morocco. Lmrabet continues to face government pressure as a result of his intent to reopen Demain, which was shut down by authorities in 2000. Most recently, officials refused to renew his identity card and proof of residence, without which he can’t legally publish in Morocco. The refusal effectively prohibits him not just from reopening the paper, but also from operating his recently established news website, DemainOnline.

In protest, Lmrabet undertook a hunger strike from the end of June until early August, camping out in front of the United Nations headquarters in Geneva. The Moroccan government ultimately acceded to Lmrabet’s demands. “The Minister of Interior got the official press together and announced that I can have a passport and a residency permit within three months,” Lmrabet told CJR. “I did accomplish something: Authorities were totally silent [on this case]. Now after this press conference, I suddenly exist and I can have my papers.” The price was steep, though; Lmrabet claims to have lost 40 kilograms, about 88 pounds, during the hunger strike.

The media environment in Morocco, one of the West’s closest Arab allies, has improved since King Mohammed VI took the throne in 1999, but Lmrabet’s case is by no means exceptional. Journalists crossing the Moroccan monarchy’s “red lines” have faced imprisonment, harassment, and beatings. Recent examples include Youseff Jajili, who was charged with criminal defamation in 2013 for reporting that the minister of industry used public money to buy alcohol on a taxpayer-funded trip, and Ali Anouzla, who was arrested in 2013 on charges of “glorifying terrorism” after publishing an article with a link to a jihadist YouTube video. Lmrabet says a Moroccan lobby in the US and France keeps the Kingdom’s repressive media environment out of the global public eye. Others have noted that Western powers are reluctant to punish Morocco because its security forces act as a check on illegal African migration and drug trafficking, and the Kingdom is seen as a counter-terrorism lynchpin in North Africa.

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MarocLeaks,” a mass of confidential Moroccan government documents disclosed on social media last fall, has lent support to these claims. The files give names and identifying information about American lobbying firms on the payroll of the Moroccan government, which work to create a positive image of Morocco in American political circles, and push the US to continue backing up Morocco in its attempts to prohibit or delay Saharan moves toward self-determination, such as a hoped-for referendum on independence.

Indeed, it is difficult to find extensive critical coverage of Morocco by US media, though whether this results from lack of interest or an aversion to portraying the Kingdom in a negative light is not clear. However, it is clear that US politicians like Hillary Clinton and others have praised Morocco on a variety of fronts while avoiding criticism of human rights abuses, lack of freedoms, or continued intransigence on Western Sahara. The MarocLeaks documents give details of the Kingdom’s attempts to curry favor with Clinton while she was secretary of state, and show that Morocco has intercepted UN communications and made donations to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in an effort to stymie UN activities that could threaten Moroccan control over Western Sahara.

Other prominent journalists have attested to the barriers to critical reporting in the North African kingdom, and to the harassment faced by journalists covering sensitive issues.

“When press talks about businessmen, or who should have the political power, or foreign policy, it comes under massive pressure,” said Omar Brouksy, 46, a former correspondent and editor for Agence France Presse in Morocco from late 2009 until last year. “The [Moroccan] authorities say, ‘Don’t give advertising or money to this paper or that website.’ Without advertising, you can’t have journalistic independence.”

Brouksy said that authorities took away his official press card in late 2012, despite his position with AFP. A Ministry of Communication communiqué from the time says that Brouksy published an article that made claims the King was influencing legislative elections in the city of Tangiers, which the government denied. Yet an AFP employee in Morocco, who asked not to be named because his company had not authorized him to speak on the matter, said that he believed the revocation of Brouksy’s press card was politically motivated, a result of his critical reporting and independence. Brousky also recently published a book that, in his words, “displeased the monarchy greatly.” Titled Mohammed VI: The Man Behind the Mask, the book has been blocked from distribution in Morocco.

Sherif Mansour, the Middle East and North Africa Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, noted that there was a period of greater media freedom in the early 2000s when journalists toed the Kingdom’s “red lines”—the royal family’s budget, foreign policy, and Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara—with relative safety. But he says freedoms began to dry up about 10 years ago, as the so-called “global war on terror” gained momentum.

Like Egypt, where military leaders have cracked down on journalists and civil society through a variety of sweeping new anti-terror laws, the Moroccan government has “used ‘fighting terrorism’ as a pretext to reduce criticism of human rights abuses,” Mansour said. There has been little international outcry over court verdicts prohibiting journalists from practicing their profession. After all, this punishment is enshrined in Moroccan law.

“It’s in the penal code of Morocco. You can be sentenced and not allowed to practice your profession for years,” said Eric Goldstein, the deputy director for Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division.

That’s what happened to Lmrabet, who began his career as Morocco’s deputy ambassador to Argentina from 1992 to 1994, but says that he soon found himself at odds with his boss, the then-ambassador to Argentina.

“He was buying cars in Miami and selling them off for a profit in Argentina,” Lmrabet said with a sour chuckle. Lmrabet says that the ambassador was not convicted, and Lmrabet eventually left the Ministry of Foreign Affairs over the controversy in 1995. That, he says was the beginning of a career covering issues of what he sees as injustice in Morocco.

In 1996, a Moroccan friend operating a daily paper asked Lmrabet to fill some pages. Discovering he had a knack for journalistic writing, he moved on soon after to La Vie Économique, a Moroccan weekly economics and finance magazine, then joined Le Journal Hebdomadaire, a weekly independent magazine founded by a team of investigative journalists and known for its cutting coverage of the monarchy.

Since then, Lmrabet has founded his own news outlets, worked as a Morocco correspondent for the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, and was jailed for months on charges of “insulting the king,” before receiving a royal pardon. Lmrabet has interviewed controversial figures like Abraham Serfaty, a Moroccan Jewish communist revolutionary who was imprisoned for 17 years and exiled for 13 because of his struggle against French colonial authorities and, later, the repressive policies of Morocco’s King Hassan II. In 1998, Lmrabet interviewed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which brought on accusations of treason from Mustafa Ramid, at the time a deputy in an Islamist political party, who has since become Minister of Justice. “People were saying I was an agent of Mossad,” Lmrabet says.

In an era of tense Arab-Israeli relations where Judaism and Israel are often depicted as synonymous, painting Lmrabet as a supporter of Jews was a powerful way to turn public opinion against him. Yet Lmrabet hails from a more diverse, religiously tolerant Morocco. His parents, indigenous Berber people from the Rif Mountains who long lived side by side with Jews (as well as Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, and Spanish colonizers over many hundreds of years), had no notion of anti-Semitism, says Lmrabet, who attended a Jewish school as a child in Tetouan. Jews only began to leave Morocco en masse in the 1950s and 60s after the creation of Israel, Morocco’s independence from European colonialism, and the rise of pan-Arab ideology in the region.

Such accusations are not the only tactic used to crack down on dissenting voices in the country’s media. Hicham Mansouri, a friend of Lmrabet and head of the Moroccan Association for Investigative Journalism, was arrested in March, beaten, and sentenced to a heavy fine and 10 months in prison on charges of adultery. Before his arrest, he was working on an investigation of electronic government surveillance in Morocco.

“The arrest of Hicham Mansouri and his conviction have no link to his work as a journalist,” an advisor to the Moroccan minister of communication wrote in an email to CJR. But Mansour, from Committee to Protect Journalists, says the charges against Mansouri are politically motivated. “This is not a case in which the government could use journalism-related charges, so they used adultery charges to defame him,” he said. “And they beat him up to send a message to others.”

To Lmrabet, the various means of silencing journalists in Morocco are an attempt to keep enduring problems like economic inequality and lack of political freedom out of public discourse. Yet, citing huge popular protest movements in the 1980s and the short-lived Moroccan Arab Spring protests in 2011, he says the government is simply trying to delay the inevitable. He predicted more widespread social unrest if Morocco continues to sweep criticism under the rug.

“I am sure that one day soon there will be a social explosion,” he told CJR. “They come in cycles.”

Sam Kimball is a freelance journalist who has reported from countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa, focusing on government abuses and revolutionary Arab hip hop. He speaks Arabic and French.