Sahara Conflict Coverage Key Factor in Effort to Silence Selected Media
April 5, 2011
At a time when King Mohammed VI has pledged sweeping reforms, including stronger human rights protections, Morocco should not place itself among the Arab governments that ban Al Jazeera television.
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch
(New York) - Morocco should stop revoking the accreditation of journalists for foreign media whose reporting displeases them, Human Rights Watch said today. In the past year, the government has closed down the Morocco operations of Al Jazeera television after revoking the accreditation of seven of its journalists, made it impossible for a Rabat-based correspondent for a Spanish daily to work in the country, and delayed for three months the re-accreditation of the Morocco correspondent for the London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi daily.

In each of these instances, the decision to withhold credentials appears to have been motivated by government displeasure with the news organization's coverage of the Western Sahara conflict. Morocco insists on its sovereignty over the contested territory, despite the refusal by the international community to accept de jure Morocco's claim. The Polisario Front, a movement based mostly in exile, seeks independence for Western Sahara.

"At a time when King Mohammed VI has pledged sweeping reforms, including stronger human rights protections, Morocco should not place itself among the Arab governments that ban Al Jazeera television," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

The accreditation withdrawals are taking place in a climate of shrinking space in Morocco for independent media. Since January 2010, three of the country's most outspoken publications have closed, victims of economic difficulties due, at least in part, to political pressures. They are the French-language weekly Le Journal Hebdomadaire, the Arabic weekly Nichan, and the Arabic daily al-Jarida al-Oula.

Hundreds of journalists who work for state-controlled media, notably the television channels and the state news agency, held protests on March 25, 2011, in Rabat and Casablanca, to demand, among other things, greater editorial independence. Their media organizations heavily favor the official positions on politically sensitive issues.

A reporter who lacks accreditation generally has no access to government-organized events such as news conferences, and can be challenged by authorities while reporting on events in public. If the journalist does not otherwise enjoy resident status in Morocco, officials can withdraw the person's right to live and work in the country.

In 2006, Al Jazeera began broadcasting its nightly North Africa news show, Al-Hasad al-Magharibi (The Maghreb Bulletin), from Morocco. This choice reflected the greater press freedom that prevailed in Morocco compared with its neighbors. But in early 2008, Moroccan authorities suspended permission for broadcasting the show from its territory, citing technical reasons. Then, in June, when the bureau chief, Hassan Rachidi, reported on a claim by a Moroccan human rights organization that the police had killed demonstrators during disturbances that month in the city of Sidi Ifni, authorities revoked his accreditation and filed charges against him. In July, a Moroccan court convicted and fined Rachidi for "disseminat[ing] false information in bad faith that can disturb the public order." Lacking accreditation, Rachidi could only work a desk job at Al Jazeera, and in January 2009, he left the country for another post with the station.

In 2009, Morocco revoked the accreditation of two more Al Jazeera journalists, Anas Ben Salah and Mohamed Bakkali. Confined to desk jobs and unable to appear on camera, the two were also soon reassigned by Al Jazeera to posts in other countries.

Then, in October 2010, Moroccan authorities revoked the accreditation of all of the remaining Al Jazeera correspondents in Morocco, and on October 29, announced that they were suspending Al Jazeera's operations in the country on the grounds that the channel had "seriously distorted Morocco's image and manifestly damaged its greater interests, most notably its territorial integrity," an apparent allusion to Western Sahara. The five Al Jazeera correspondents who lost their accreditation at that time were Mohamed Fadel, Iqbal al-Hami, Mohamed Faqih, Abdelhak Esshaseh, and Abdelkader Kharoubi.

Rachid Khechana, Al Jazeera's news director for the Maghreb, told Human Rights Watch that Moroccan authorities had complained frequently to the station about its coverage of Western Sahara, accusing it of adopting a line supporting the Polisario Front.

Since October 2010, Al Jazeera crews and journalists have not been able to report news from inside Morocco or Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara.

The closing of the bureau coincided with a rise in tensions in Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, after several thousand Sahrawis, early in October, erected a tent encampment outside the provincial capital, El-Ayoun, to protest socio-economic conditions. Moroccan authorities and some Sahrawi leaders met to negotiate an end to the protest, but on November 8, security forces moved in to evacuate the camp's participants and dismantle it. This led to violent clashes in the camp that spilled over into the streets of El-Ayoun.

Morocco initially denied foreign media access to El-Ayoun to report on the confrontation. On November 11, the Communications Ministry announced that Morocco was revoking the accreditation of Luis De Vega, Morocco correspondent for the Spanish ABC daily since 2002, because of his "consistent disrespect for the rules of the profession."

The same day, Morocco expelled three Spanish radio journalists who were trying to circumvent the media blackout on El-Ayoun. Morocco authorized only one foreign journalist, a reporter for the French daily Le Monde, and one international human rights organization, Human Rights Watch, to visit the city and the dismantled camp in the days following the clashes.

Authorities did not provide De Vega with more specific reasons for revoking his accreditation. But a ministry official had called De Vega a month earlier to complain about an article in ABC about a trial of Sahrawi independence activists entitled "Morocco puts the Sahara on trial (Marruecos juzga al Sahara)", calling it an "insult", and warning De Vega that there would be consequences, ABC reported in its November 13 edition.

Unable to do his job, De Vega left Morocco.

The Ministry of Communication on April 1 reaccredited Mahmoud Maârouf, a Palestinian who is Al-Quds al-Arabi's long-time Rabat correspondent, after having made him wait three months since his card expired at the end of 2010. On March 24, 2011, one week before reaccrediting Maârouf, the Communications Ministry issued a statement on his status:

The ministry, which maintains a relationship of respect and ongoing communication with all accredited correspondents, has always dealt civilly with him despite the proven professional missteps that have characterized his coverage of developments relating to the Moroccan Sahara, and his siding on more than one occasion with the propaganda issued by Morocco's enemies. This prompted the ministry to protest this journalistic stance, which offends the feelings of Moroccans, via an official letter dated November 5, 2010 and addressed to Mr. Abdelbari Atwan, director of Al Quds al Arabi, asking him to correct this abnormal situation, and expressing surprise at finding these articles hostile to our territorial integrity in the pages of an Arabic newspaper that proclaims its support for the values of unity and opposes all forms of separation and fragmentation in the Arab world.

On March 25, 2011, the Communications Ministry accredited an Agence France-Presse (AFP) reporter, Omar Brouksy, after refusing him accreditation for nearly a year. The French news agency had recruited Brouksy, a Moroccan citizen, in March 2010, to work in its Rabat bureau. After signing a contract with AFP, Brouksy applied for accreditation in May. The Communications Ministry usually issues the card within two weeks, but in Brouksy's case withheld it for 10 months, effectively preventing him from reporting on official functions and from having his byline on his stories.

The government gave no reason for withholding Brouksy's accreditation. However, some Moroccan observers speculated in the press that the ministry objected to his previous journalistic work as editor-in-chief and a reporter for Le Journal Hebdomadaire, Morocco's most outspoken news organ before it closed. He wrote articles critical of the country's political leadership, including King Mohammed VI and those close to him.

Another Moroccan journalist, Ali Mrabet, was, in April 2005, banned from practicing his profession for 10 years after being convicted of defamation of a pro-Morocco Sahrawi nongovernmental organization. In a broadcast interview, he had described Sahrawis living in camps in Algeria as "refugees" rather than as "captives" of the Polisario, the formulation preferred by Moroccan officialdom. The ban, under article 87 of the Penal Code, prevents Mrabet from obtaining accreditation, but does not prevent him from filing articles. He has continued to file commentaries and reports, mainly for Spanish newspapers, and recently founded an online journal, http://www.demainonline.com/.

Moroccan authorities should allow Al Jazeera back into the country, stop withholding the accreditation of journalists in reprisal for their reporting, and end the absurd 10-year ban on Mrabet, Human Rights Watch said, while welcoming the accreditation of Mahmoud Maârouf and Omar Brouksy.

"Morocco is home to many correspondents who report for foreign news media," Whitson said. "But the true measure of press freedom in this case is less in the number of reporters it grants accreditation than in the tolerance it shows to those whose reporting displeases it."