Rarely has a jailed Arab journalist prompted so many calls for his release, internationally and in his own country, as Moroccan independent journalist Ali Anouzla. He was arbitrarily arrested on Sept. 17 and ludicrously charged a week later with “promoting terrorism” and “providing assistance to its perpetrators.” Anouzla faces up to 20 years in prison in a country where his right to a fair trial is not guaranteed.In a region where abuse of power, corruption and gross violations of children and women’s rights remain more tolerated than independent journalism, Anouzla’s crime was to publish an article on his Arabic news site Lakome referring to a video released by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. A link to the video, titled “Morocco: Kingdom of Corruption and Despotism,” came from the website of Spain’s leading daily El Pais.
The article posted by Lakome called the armed group’s video “propaganda,” and more than 60 international freedom of expression groups declared that the news site did not endorse the video’s call to combat the regime of Moroccan King Mohammad VI. Yet the Moroccan authorities could not find a better opportunity to settle scores with one of their most credible and indefatigable critics.
The charges against Anouzla are groundless and undoubtedly aimed at punishing him for Lakome’s unwavering editorial independence and for shedding light on cases of abuse of power and corruption, still deemed “red lines,” two years after the ruling Islamist Party of Justice and Development promised to implement judicial reform to combat endemic corruption and the paralyzing culture of secrecy.
This prosecution “is a deeply troubling example” of the failure of the Moroccan government to distinguish between “the right to freedom of expression and information on one hand, and incitement to terrorism by disseminating the video on the other hand,” Amnesty International said. The London-based international human rights group also warned that “any discussion of terrorism, including criticism of counterterrorism strategies” would be treated in the future by the government of Morocco “as a criminal offense.”
Recently, such behavior on the part of the Moroccan government spurred an unprecedented wave of protesters, particularly in Casablanca, Rabat and Tangiers, not seen since Morocco’s independence in 1956. Protesters were outraged by the detention of Anouzla, with many protesters angered with the equation of “journalism with terrorism.” They condemned what they called a “ruthless act of revenge against a brave journalist.”
Attempts to silence Anouzla through intimidation, judicial harassment and crippling fines have continued unabated. This led to the closure of his daily Al-Jarida al-Oula after a cycle of politically motivated court cases, including one in 2009 after he wrote that Libya’s former dictator Moammar Gadhafi seized power in 1969 following a coup, and not a “popular revolution.”
These attempts occurred amid rising attacks on critical journalists, which started just a few years after Mohammad ascended the throne in 1999, and led to Morocco being placed in 2007 on the Committee to Protect Journalists’ list of the 10 countries where press freedom has most deteriorated.
But this latest attempt is the cruelest. It occurred nearly six weeks after Lakome broke the news of the release, following a royal pardon on Throne Day on July 30, of Galvan Vina, a Spanish pedophile who was serving a lengthy prison sentence in Morocco. The public outcry was amplified by social media, and led Mohammad to reverse his decision. It also reportedly came amid increasing anger among the king’s advisers toward Anouzla. Many also believe that an editorial he posted on Sept. 13 criticizing the Saudi regime, in which he argued “any genuine change in the Arab region should start in the Arab Gulf,” must have influenced the decision to punish him.
Those who know Anouzla were not surprised to see Lakome emerge in 2010 from the ashes of Al-Jarida al-Oula and soon become one of the most professional and ethical sources of information about Morocco. I had the honor to meet him several times during the past eight years, including at a Casablanca court in 2009 when he and other journalists were charged with defaming Gadhafi. The wide respect he enjoys, not only in Morocco, but in different Arab countries stems from his devotion to independent journalism and ability to tackle in a fair-minded way issues of interest usually ignored by mainstream media and other politically biased private and partisan media outlets.
The unprecedented local, regional and international solidarity with Anouzla came as a reminder that the Arab walk to freedom and genuine democracy backed by a free press is irreversible. It is saddening that the Moroccan regime, which made significant steps toward the rule of law and independent journalism at the end of the rule of King Hassan II more than 15 years ago, does not seem inclined to learn from its mistakes and those of evicted autocratic rulers.
Like Tunisia before the overthrow of the autocratic Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Morocco under Mohammad and its Islamist government seems increasingly willing to use its draconian 2003 Law on Combating Terrorism to fight its critics. Yet it seems tragically unaware that its future, like that of all Arab countries, would be bleak, unstable and insecure without free journalists such as Ali Anouzla.
Kamel Labidi is a Tunisian freelance journalist and former president of the National Commission to Reform Information and Communication (www.inric.tn), whose members resigned in 2012 to protest against the lack of political will to implement media reform in Tunisia. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.