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Muzzling Journalists: Morocco and Algeria Can Agree on That

Two Prosecutions Highlight Threats to Press Freedom

Morocco and Algeria are neighbors and rivals, sharing one of the world’s longest closed-land borders, vying for diplomatic supremacy in the Maghreb region, sparring over Western Sahara, and insulting each other’s governments daily via state-influenced media.

But recent prosecutions of journalists highlight one thing the two countries have long held in common. Algeria’s constitution and Morocco’s 2016 press law trumpet that no press offenses shall result in prison, but both states have just thrown the book at prominent journalists despite the pretense of respect for press freedom. Morocco’s modus operandi is to file a host of specific criminal charges, while the Algerian authorities prefer vaguely defined penal code offenses.

On August 3, an Algiers court tried Khaled Drareni, imprisoned since March, for “undermining national unity” and “calling for an illegal gathering.” The prosecutor demanded four years in prison; a verdict is expected August 10.

In Casablanca, authorities jailed Omar Radi on July 29, after interrogating him 12 times over four weeks. He is scheduled to appear before an investigative judge on September 22, accused of harming external state security through relations with foreign agents, harming internal state security through the receipt of foreign funds – and rape.

Drareni, Algiers correspondent of TV5 Monde and Reporters sans Frontières, and co-founder of casbah-tribune.com, apparently irked authorities with his coverage of Algeria’s ongoing Hirak protest movement. Drareni posted video clips on social media of the massive weekly demonstrations for political reform that last spring forced President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to resign. Drareni’s exuberant but peaceful documentation of Hirak on Facebook and Twitter, where he has over 140,000 followers, constitutes the bulk of the evidence against him, his lawyers told Human Rights Watch.

Moroccan authorities have long been gunning for Radi, who investigated topics such as land grabs and state corruption. In June, Amnesty International reported that Radi’s phone had been penetrated by Pegasus spyware; authorities denied any involvement. In March, a court handed him a four-month suspended sentence for a year-old tweet criticizing a judge for imposing harsh sentences on activists. 

But the pile-on of disparate accusations, accompanied by a slander campaign originating in media seemingly close to Moroccan security services, make Radi’s prosecution look like a bid to crush him and intimidate others. That said, the allegation of rape should be treated seriously and investigated fully and fairly, especially in the context of a politicized case where observers may jump to conclusions.

Algerian and Moroccan authorities might compete in many domains, but when it comes to disliking bold journalism and commentary, they agree.

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