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By Samia Errazzouki
The scenario borders sheer absurdity. Ali Anouzla, a Moroccan editor and journalist, whose work is most often featured on the online Moroccan news publication, Lakome, was arrested for reporting on a video that the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) released. The AQIM video targeted King Mohammed VI as leading a kingdom of « corruption » and « despotism. » Moreover, the video calls on Moroccans to wage a violent resistance to the monarchy’s rule. The video itself, with its context, origins, objectives, and timing, certainly merits coverage. And as Lakome stands as the most consistent source of information (they were the site that originally broke the story of #DanielGate: the royal pardon of the convicted Spanish pedophile), Lakome‘s coverage of this video breaks no norms.
Contrary to reports circulating online, Lakome did not post the video, but rather published a screenshot along with a synopsis of its contents.
Three days after Lakome covered the video, news spread across social media that Ali Anouzla was interrogated, then arrested in response to Lakome‘s coverage of AQIM’s video. Moroccan site Yabiladi was one of the first to break the news based on confirmed information. Within hours, a #FreeAliAnouzla campaign was in full force, including the launch of a petition calling for his release. There are several factors to consider in light of this blatant violation of a basic journalistic freedom: the singling out of Ali Anouzla, an unchanged precedent of the regime’s oppression of online and independent media, and the outward projection of the Makhzen’s fragility and its insecurities.
Those who of us who first heard of Ali Anouzla’s arrest were dismayed but not surprised. Ali Anouzla has long been a torchbearer with regard to maintaining a critical perspective toward the Moroccan regime in its entirety–including the king. His articles carried a consistent bite that delivered incisive commentary that inspired, pushed boundaries, and set precedents. It was only this past June that Anouzla wrote a damning article that pointed out the king’s consistent absence from Morocco for his own personal vacations and the political implications behind those extended periods of absences. Anouzla also co-authored a pertinent piece with Aboubakr Jamaï, who heads the French version of Lakome, on how the inherent authoritarian nature of the Moroccan regime is a factor to consider regarding its position toward the Western Sahara.
The king and the Western Sahara are the unspoken « hands-off » topic in Moroccan media, unless the position being put forth explicitly supports the dominant narrative. Ali Anouzla has not shied away from not only addressing these « hands-off » topics, but more importantly, critically engaging them on an Arabic platform that predominately addresses Moroccan readers. There had been prior reports that Anouzla received visits from Moroccan intelligence officers, which has become a rite of passage for most critical writers and activists in Morocco. Though Anouzla, as a Moroccan living in Morocco writing pieces that critically engage dominant narratives, and whose pieces tend to see widespread dissemination, his writings have come to embody precisely what the Moroccan regime has attempted to subvert. Since the regime cannot arrest and/or interrogate every single Moroccan writer, journalist, editor, or activist, it takes a nuanced approach that is not always calculated to subvert these critical voices
Anouzla, specifically, gained a loyal and growing following both within Morocco and abroad. His articles were often translated to French, English, and other languages, cited in major news outlets, and became the source of a critical and informed perspective that was underrepresented in Moroccan media, even online. For this reason, news of his arrest spread relatively quickly and with much indignation. It was not long after his arrest that the Moroccan Association for Human Rights and the Moroccan National Press Union released statements, as well as Amnesty International. A Facebook group with over 4,000 followers has also been created. Several protests have been organized calling for his release in Casablanca and Rabat, among others.
Aboubakr Jamaï characterized it best: « The [Moroccan] regime wants an end to electronic press. » The limits on online press in Morocco differ to that of print, for obvious reasons. The financial costs of maintaining an online publication are far less than that of a print publication. Online press is also more accessible to an international audience. And then there is also the advantage of being able to host an online publication on a foreign server, such as is the case with Lakome, among others. All these factors make it difficult for the Moroccan regime to police and censor critical publications. However, the cost lays with the affiliates of these publications that are based in Morocco, such as Ali Anouzla. They become easy targets for harassment and prosecution, though they are often paying for being associated with a publication that is known to tow a critical editorial line. This is when the value of anonymity becomes greater, as is often the case with some of the most prolific online Moroccan users. Ali Anouzla certainly isn’t an exception, however. There have been instances of the Moroccan regime pursuing and harassing other writers whose work appears both online and in print, such as Ahmed Benchemsi and Ali Lmrabet.
The stream of logic is certainly twisted. AQIM publishes a video, Ali Anouzla reports on it, Ali Anouzla gets arrested and detained for « inciting terrorism » and is therefore held under the anti-terrorism law of 2003. The regime is obviously less concerned with Anouzla’s coverage of such video other than using this as a window of opportunity to silence one of its most prolific critics. What could trigger such insecurities other than looming fear of threat to the status quo? The regime had to deal with the unexpected and rapid response to the king’s pardon of a Spanish pedophile several months ago which yielded nationwide demonstrations, widespread coverage on international mainstream media, and direct criticism toward the king’s management of affairs. The response shook the regime to its core, forcing the palace to respond with an immediate press release and promise of an investigation–a response unheard of in Morocco’s recent history. This, paired with the ongoing price hikes in basic commodities, such as fuel (whose price was hiked just this week), paint a seemingly gloomy picture for the stability that the Moroccan regime has banked on since the first pro-democracy protests broke out in February 2011.
This is all to say that Ali Anouzla’s arrest, while deplorable, comes at time when the regime is grappling with its own image and interests. Perhaps the regime expected that more would be sympathetic to its detainment of Anouzla, thus their decision to characterize this affair as a matter relating to « terrorism » and « national security. » Though such an act only further reveals the authoritarian nature of the regime and its failure to address genuine demands for reforms, despite the fact that its oppressive treatment toward critical voices defies its own measures it put forth in the 2011 constitution. The regime has established a precedent, however–the fact that such a measured response in opposition to its repression remains steadfast indicates that passivity is not among the courses Moroccans have chosen.
For further reading on Ali Anouzla’s arrest: