In a discussion with me last week about freedom of expression in his country, Moroccan Minister of Communication Moustapha Khalfi boasted that Sahrawi people living in Western Sahara who opposed Moroccan rule over the contested former Spanish colony are free to post whatever they want online without facing cybercensorship.
Activists in El-Ayoun, the capital of Western Sahara – or the “southern provinces” as Khalfi prefers to call it -- confirm that Morocco does not block their online content. But the interference with activists’ work comes earlier. People caught filming police actions risk getting their equipment confiscated; bloggers have been threatened, demonstrations blocked or tightly controlled so as to limit the images that make it online.
The police here systematically block public demonstrations called by associations that the authorities suspect of favoring self-determination for the territory, which Morocco has claimed since invading and annexing it in 1975. In recent years, authorities have allowed only one such rally, on May 4, 2013.
Last week, Sahrawi human rights organizations notified authorities of a demonstration they wished to hold on February 15 at 5:30 p.m. Well before the appointed hour, more than 100 uniformed and plainclothes police fanned out in all directions from the designated intersection, blocking the way for anyone they suspected of intending to participate. Twice as I tried to approach, plainclothes officers turned me back “for my own protection.” A British MP and his delegation were able to get near a handful of demonstrators before the police blocked them and snatched a camera from their car, returning it to only after deleting some photos they had just taken, according to John Hilary, an NGO worker in their delegation. The governor later accused them of trying to incite the protestors to riot.
Earlier that day, a student who maintains a Facebook page documenting human rights violations told me how, on February 2, plainclothes police officers arrested him on the street, interrogated him about his web activism, forced him to reveal his online passwords, and then downloaded and read his email and webpages on a computer at the police station, in his presence. They released him in the middle of the night, warning his father that next time he’ll face criminal charges, he said.
The student told us that when filming police actions against Sahrawi demonstrators, he and colleagues crouch on balconies and rooftops to avoid confiscation of their equipment. This explains why the imagery they post is often blurred and choppy.
Morocco may not use technical means to censor websites, but on the ground in Western Sahara, its police censor via bullying and batons.