The press and the palace: Moroccan journalists denounce government crackdown on media

by ILHEM RACHIDI

Protests in Rabat, Morocco calling for the release of journalist Ali Anouzla in 2013. Journalist and Al Aoual news website founder Soulaiman Raissouni is pictured in the center PHOTO/Ilhem Rachidi

Moroccan journalist Soulaiman Raissouni was recently one of many writers in the country who took refuge on the internet after he was sidelined and silenced by his editors for his critical coverage of the Moroccan government.

Raissouni said editors punished him for a report he filed on the management of a cultural festival in the town of Asilah. The article, he said, had angered the municipality’s leaders.

Two years ago, after being marginalized at the newspaper Al Massae, one of Morocco’s biggest dailies, and not assigned any stories for seven months, Raissouni decided to leave the paper with a colleague and set out on his own.

He started his own news website, Al Aoual, which has given a voice to people generally not seen in the pro-government media, including those critical of the government, opposition figures, and activists.

Although he is now relatively free to decide which subjects he can cover, Raissouni, like most journalists in Morocco, is forced to stay away from topics that are deemed too sensitive, and to second guess each word he writes.

Most journalists admit they do not cross certain “red lines” in Morocco. These lines include critical coverage of Morocco’s king and his advisers, Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara territory, Islam, and another line that has progressively become more dangerous to cross, the economic Makhzen (Morocco’s state and administration), meaning big names in business close to the monarchy.

These lines are not precisely defined in any official law. Journalists are therefore forced to go around these subjects as far as they can, leaving them and their editors to assess the risk they are willing to take. These poorly defined red lines are not only for journalists, but for everyone. Human rights defenders in Morocco further insist such crackdowns are in contradiction with the constitution passed in 2011 to quell pro-democracy protests; the document guarantees freedom of expression.

Moroccan journalists know what they risk when they go too far and are forced to self-censor. While no Moroccan official would admit this is the case, the government sends clear messages to journalists about how they should conduct their work. For example, some journalists say they face police harassment for their reporting, while others are sued or face jail time. Press freedom has further weakened in Morocco because journalists and editors suffer advertising boycotts and defamation when they come too close to the red lines.

As a result, in the 2017 Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, Morocco ranked 133rd out of 180 countries.

In order to survive and keep one’s job, self-censorship is mandatory in Morocco’s news business, according to Raissouni. “I cannot write everything I want. Everybody does self-censorship to different degrees,” he admitted. He says he therefore uses rhetoric, metaphors or symbols, when he writes, in order to “say and not say things.”

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