The prosecution of seven prominent journalists and human rights advocates in Morocco last November has brought rising levels of international scrutiny to the regime of King Mohammed VI.
As we look ahead to the trial of these seven men, including former Global Voices Advocacy Director Hisham Almiraat, we are working as a community to better understand the political and social context in which their prosecution has taken place.
Before the current monarch, King Mohammed VI, came to power, Morocco was an extremely difficult place for journalists to live and work. King Hassan II was most famous internationally for the Years of Lead, a period from the 1960s until the late 1990s, during which outspoken political dissidents could expect arrest, jail time, and even execution in response to their critiques.
After the ascendancy of current monarch Mohammed VI in 1999, things improved. But in 2006, journalists began to face consequences for their work once again—and now, alongside them, citizens engaged in political activism online also became targets. From then onward, these groups became routine targets of Moroccan authorities.
2007: Heat rises for journalists
The magazine Nichane is shuttered over a series of common Moroccan jokes they published, some of which were about the king. The journalist and editor involved are lightly fined and given suspended sentences.
At about the same time, well-known journalist Aboubakr Jamaï is slapped with an exorbitant fine that the government knows he can't pay, forcing closure of his publication, Le Journal Hebdomodaire.
2008: Social media activists targeted
Fouad Mourtada is arrested for starting a fan page for one of Morocco's princes and becomes the first person in Morocco prosecuted for his activities on social media. Mourtada is convicted of “villainous practices linked to the alleged theft” of the prince's identity and is sentenced to 3 years in prison. His sentence is ultimately reduced to 43 days, following public outcry.
Blogger Mohammed Erraji is arrested for writing, in the Arabic publication Hespress, that the king's charity toward his people encourages them to remain helpless rather than work hard. He is later acquitted.
Over the next couple of years, several publications, including Nichane, are forced to shut down after temporary bans and potential bankruptcy. The publisher of Nichane and TelQuel, Ahmed Benchemsi, leaves the country to avoid further persecution.
2011: Morocco joins the Arab uprisings
Moroccan citizens take to the streets throughout the country, demanding limits to the powers of King Mohammed VI and joining the wave of civic activism across the Arab region
The government responds with reforms, and the February 20 movement dies down.
Working with colleagues, defendant Hisham Almiraat launches Mamfakinch, an alternative media platform dedicated to covering citizen resistance to government repression.
2012: Threat levels increase for social media activists
Hip hop artist Mouad “El 7aqed” Belghouat is arrested and convicted of insulting the regime, a charge based on his hit song “Dogs of the State,” in which he compared state police to dogs. Known for his controversial political lyrics, Mouad had a leading voice within Morocco’s pro-democracy movement.
2013: Internet regulation takes hold
Journalist Ali Anouzla is arrested for linking to Spanish paper El País, which linked to an Al Qaeda video (yes, you read that right). His case continues.
Later that year, Morocco makes moves to regulate the Internet with proposed legislation known as the Code Numérique, that sought to restrict views expressed online by forbidding disrespect to the king, the regime or public order.
2014: Activists suffer backlash
In April, thousands of people take to the streets in Casablanca express frustration with labor, social and political issues affecting youth in the country. Nine leading members of the February 20 Movement, the pro-democracy movement that began in the immediate aftermath of the Arab spring, are arrested.
Rapper and video blogger Mouad “El 7aqed” Belghouat is arrested again.
Student activist groups stage three flash mobs in Rabat, Casablanca and in Mohammedia, as seen in the following video:
2015: Legal crackdown on journalists and activists
Arrests and fines become increasingl
March: A Rabat court sentences press freedom advocate Hicham Mansouri, one of the defendants, to a ten-month jail term and a $4,057 fine over what his colleagues describe as a trumped-up adultery charge. Mansouri is the project manager for the Moroccan Association for Investigative Journalism (AMJI), a group which works to promote freedom of expression, access to information and investigative journalism. Prior to his arrest, he was working on a report about alleged Internet surveillance of activists and journalists by the Moroccan authorities.
April: Mouad “El 7aqed” Belghouat is awarded the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression award for artists.
May: The Ministry of Interior launches an investigation concerning research on digital surveillance and “Their Eyes on Me,” a report on the topic co-authored by Casablanca-based Association for Digital Rights and UK-based NGO Privacy International. The former was co-founded and led by Hisham Almiraat, one of the defendants in the case.
June: A Casablanca court sentences in absentia the director of the news site badil.info, Hamid Mahdaoui. Mahdaoui was handed a suspended jail term of four months for publishing a report on the death of political activist Karim Lachkar in police custody. He was also ordered to pay a 10 million Moroccan dirhams in damages to the head of the general directorate of national security, along with a fine of 6000 dirhams.
July: Leaked documents from the massive hack on surveillance software company Hacking Team's files reveal that Moroccan authorities spent USD $3.1 million on surveillance software between 2009 and 2012.
September: Samad Iach, another of the defendants, is interrogated by police over his participation in training sessions for using StoryMaker, a mobile application that helps journalists produce and publish stories.
January 17: Hicham Mansouri is released from prison.
January 27: The seven defendants begin trial.