World Press Freedom Day: “Tyranny is not destiny, freedom has to be achieved”

On World Press Freedom Day, we look at the situation of journalists and of the press in different countries in the Arab-Maghreb region

May 04, 2021 by Madaar

In honor of World Press Freedom Day, Madaar presents a review of the situation of press freedom and attacks on journalists in different countries of the Arab-Maghreb region. The region ranks high on global registers of attacks on journalists and media projects, making it one of the most dangerous regions to be a journalist. Yet, people driven by the need to counter the narratives imposed by imperialism and speak the truth about valiant people’s movements and state repression such as with the Hirak protests in Rif, Morocco and across Algeria, continue writing and continue publishing.

Morocco: Fighting for the dignity of the people

“Tyranny is not destiny, freedom has to be achieved, even if it takes a long time. Besides, if my time has come to pay the price on behalf of this wretched new generation, which was born between the Old and the so-called New regime, then I am ready to pay it with all courage, and I will go to my fate with a calm, smiling heart with a relaxed conscience.” These were the words written by Moroccan investigative journalist Omar Al-Radi, before he was arrested and placed in pre-trial detention where he remains till today. He had previously informed authorities that the complaint against him on charges of rape and indecent assault was “malicious”, and that the case It is not detached from the “judicial harassment to which he was subjected”.

On June 22, 2020, Amnesty International issued a report stating that the journalist Omar Al-Radi’s phone had been hacked using the “Pegasus” spyware which is produced by the Israeli company “NSO”. This company states that it sells its spying technology to governments only. Immediately after that, Al-Radi was subjected to a series of harassment, including the close monitoring of his private life, and a continuous campaign of defamation, insults and slander against him and his family by pro-government newspapers. He also has been subjected to a series of repeated and long lasting interrogations. In about one month, Omar was interrogated ten times by the National Brigade of the Moroccan Judicial Police. The accusations were “receiving money from foreign parties with the aim of harming the internal integrity of the state.”

On Wednesday, July 29, 2020, the Moroccan authorities arrested the journalist Omar Radi and placed him under the measures of preventive detention for several accusations. Omar was charged of indecent assault, violence and rape, while the Moroccan Public Prosecution submitted a petitioner to charge him of “receiving foreign funds with the aim of harming the state’s internal affairs and the initiation of contacts with secret services of a foreign state with the aim of harming Morocco’s diplomatic status. ”

Omar has already expressed that he had been subjected to a “trap carefully and tightly prepared for months, while the attempt to target him had been running several weeks ago.” This detention coincided with the repeated summons directed to him by the police for various accusations. However, he said that the plaintiff of the rape accusation had had consensual sex with him, and that the matter does not contradict his principles and his human rights education.

The National Committee for Freedom of Prisoners of Conscience and the Defense of Freedom of Expression (Morocco) expressed its “blatant condemnation of the arrest of journalist and human rights activist Omar Radi,” and expressed its full support for him “as a prisoner of conscience who pays the price for his professional investigative journalism on the files of corruption in power and his critical political opinions. Manifestations of tyranny in the prevailing political system, and his human rights struggle in support of groups whose rights are denied.”

On August 1,  2020, the committee, which is made up of prominent Moroccan human rights figures, issued a statement in which it declared that “the frequent resort to sexual charges to arrest critical journalists, activists and dissidents has become a method that exposes its owners and no longer fools anyone.” It also called for the immediate release of Omar Al-Radi, and putting an end to “the various methods of harassment and intimidation against him, including methods of defamation and insult in Yellow Newspapers.”

The latest detention of Omar is not the first one targeting him. He was arrested on December 25, 2019, due to harsh criticism of the Moroccan judicial authorities after the judgments issued against the detainees of the Hirak Rif (northern Morocco). He was imprisoned for a period of six days, then he was convicted to four-months suspended sentence for “insulting the judiciary”. On July 6, 2020, Omar was also accused of public consumption of alcohol and violence against a photographer affiliated with a pro-government media outlet, who defamed him many times. Consequently, Omar spent a night in detention while the accusation was continued.

Since Omar’s detention, his father, Idris Al-Radi who is also an activist in the ranks of the leftist party of “Social Democratic Vanguard Party”, has been writing a letter every day to his son in prison. So far, his father has written two hundred and fifty letters. In the last letter he expressed that: “The countdown has begun to face heavy and fabricated charges based on the security approach that targeted young activists whose motivation for struggle was their love for their country. Those young people dared to confront the corruption that prevailed all over the country. Meanwhile, several free activists have been mobilizing all over the country to express solidarity with you. They demand your freedom and struggle to put an end to political imprisonment which brings back the Years of Lead and makes the matter of democratic transition costly in terms of freedoms and rights of citizens and social justice that preserves the dignity of people and protects them from poverty.”

The father of the detained journalist added, in words of burning and bitterness: “This trial will be a trial of the security apparatus and its unpopular and anti-democratic public policies, led by the savage capitalist camp which is not concerned with the interests of the country, but rather its own interests in order to gain political power and money.”

Among the examples of those who swallowed the bitterness of imprisonment in connection with the profession of journalism in the Kingdom of Morocco is the historian and jurist, Maati Munjib, who organized the “Investigative Journalism Award” in Morocco between 2007 and 2009. Recently, he got out of prison after a twenty-day hunger strike but was still persecuted even after being released.

Monjib is accused of “threatening the security and integrity of the state,” and “obtaining illegal foreign funding.” Besides him, several other journalists have been convicted for the same charges. This includes two members of the Moroccan Association for Investigative Journalism, Hisham Al-Mansouri and Abdel-Samad Ait Ayyash, who were sentenced to one year in prison with a fine. They are both currently political refugees in France. In addition to them, the member of the Digital Rights Association, Hisham Khribchi, who is now a political refugee in the Netherlands. Moreover, Muhammad al-Sabr, a human rights activist, was also sentenced to three months of Impermeable prison while the journalist Maria Makrim and the activist Rashid Tariq were fined 500 dollars for each.

Maati Munjib previously said that the reason behind pursuing him “is to punish me for a press statement I published” on the role of the homeland Monitoring Agency (internal intelligence services) in suppressing dissidents and managing political and media affairs in Morocco.

In the same context, Amnesty International called for “an end to the misuse of penal laws or administrative regulations related to receiving foreign funding, as a means of targeting independent human rights organizations or independent journalists.”

In another case, Suleiman Raissouni is considered the third journalist in the Moroccan newspaper Akhbar al-Youm to be arrested after Hajar Raissouni, his niece, and Tawfiq Bouachrine, owner of the newspaper, which recently announced its suspension, on charges of “indecent assault with violence and detention” against a young Moroccan homosexual. Additionally, the Journalist Hamid al-Mahdawi was imprisoned for three years, charged with “failing to report what could harm the country’s internal security.” His imprisonment was denounced by Reporters Without Borders, and considered it an unfair judgment.

Another prominent Moroccan journalist, Fatima Al-Afriqi, announced that she had stopped writing opinion articles under the pressure of “threat and censorship”. She expressed her concerns stating that “The message received, O guards with your machine guns behind sandbags of memories and dreams of my skull … I understood you who inspect my weaknesses and possible mistakes. I raise the white flag and declare my defeat, and I will withdraw from the battlefield.” Despite the declared defeat, she continued writing, of course.

Algeria: the battle of the press at the heart of the movement

In Algeria, the situation of the press does not seem to be much better. In its press freedom list for the year 2020, Reporters Without Borders ranked the country on the 146th out of 180 countries which constitutes decline of five places in the ranking.

The two-year prison sentence imposed on the Algerian journalist, Khaled Dararni, who has become a symbol of freedom of the press in the country, caused an uproar in the country and abroad. It was also strongly criticized by Amnesty.  Khaled was released a year after his arrest, along with about 40 detainees, after President Abdel-Majid Taboun pardoned the “Hirak, February 22, 2019” prisoners.

Khaled, the correspondent of the French TV 5 Monde channel, was arrested in March 2020 in Algiers when he was covering a demonstration. On April 27, 2020, another journalist, Walid Kachida who is the founder and director of the satirical Facebook page “Hirak Memes”, was arrested in Setif. He was charged with “contempt and insulting the president of the republic” and “insulting religion”. On January 4, 2021, he was sentenced to three years of prison.

On August 24, Abd al-Karim Zogilic, director of the digital radio “Radio Sarbakan,” was sentenced to two years in prison for “undermining national unity” and “insulting the president of the republic,” for a post in which he called to create a new political party. On September 21, the Ministry of Communication banned the French television channel “M6” from operating in Algeria, one day after it broadcasted a documentary film about the Hirak protests. According to Human Rights Watch, the grounds for this prohibition were that the channel’s crew used a “fake filming license” to operate in the country.

The same human rights body indicated that the Algerian parliament approved, on April 22, 2020, unanimously, new laws drafted in a vague manner so that they can be used to criminalize peaceful criticism.

Syria: Press freedom in war

In Syria, journalists are still seriously endangered. They risk their lives in order to position themselves in the front lines to cover in conflict areas. Since 2011, Reporters Without Borders has documented the killing of at least 300 journalists, either as a result of their presence in exchanges of fire or as a result of their assassination by hands of one of the conflicting parties.

According to the Syrian Media Center, Reporters Without Borders partner in Syria, “while the government and its intelligence services were the party originally responsible for the arrests during the first two years of the war, the fragmentation of the country led to the emergence of new enemies for journalists, especially jihadist groups such as the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Army of Islam.”

Egypt: Sisi suffocates the press

According to Human Rights Watch, tens of thousands of government critics of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, including journalists and human rights defenders, are still imprisoned on politically motivated charges. In its report on Egypt’s human rights situation for 2020, HRW notes that “many of the prisoners are in prolonged pretrial detention.”  While the authorities “frequently used charges of terrorism against peaceful activists and harassed and detained relatives of dissidents abroad, along with critics on social media, with an increase in the use of the repressive cybercrime law of 2018. They have also blocked hundreds of news and human rights websites without a judicial authorization since 2017.”

The same report indicated that journalists Sulafa Majdi, Hussam Al-Sayed and Mohamed Salah have been in pretrial detention on charges of “joining a terrorist group” and “spreading fake news” since November 2019.

According to international groups that monitor freedom of the press, such as the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Press Institute, the number of journalists was behind bars in Egypt ranges between 30 and 60 in 2020, which is one of the highest rates in the world, according to the same source.

Saudi Arabia: Khashoggi is not a memory

The Saudi authorities, in which influential figures are known to be involved in the case of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the dismemberment of his body at the headquarters of a diplomatic body in Turkey, continue to crack down on dissidents, human rights activists, independent clerics and journalists. According to the report issued by “Human Rights Watch” for the year 2020, prominent human rights activists are still arrested since 2018. They are detained because of their advocacy for women’s rights like the activists Loujain Al-Hathloul, Maya Al-Zahrani, Samar Badawi, Nouf Abdel Aziz, and Nassima Al-Sada.

The same source indicates that in July a Saudi court sentenced a Yemeni blogger to ten months in prison and a fine of 10,000 Saudi riyals (US $ 2,700) with his deportation to Yemen, for posting a video on social media calling for equal rights, including for LGBTQ people.

Sudan: freedom of the press within the scope of the law

In Sudan, which witnessed a popular revolution that toppled the rule of the “Islamist” Omar al-Bashir, the transitional government, in July 2020, amended the Cybercrime Law of 2007, but “increased the penalties contained therein instead of canceling the vaguely worded crimes that criminalize ‘spreading fake news’, And publishing ‘indecent or indecent content.’” According to a report by HRW, on July 18, 2020. the Sudanese Army appointed a special commissioner to file lawsuits against individuals who “abuse” the armed forces on the Internet, inside and outside the country.

On January 7, the “Supreme Committee to Dismantle the June 30 System and Remove Empowerment,” formed to tackle corruption and recover assets and property stolen from the former ruling party, banned “Al-Rai Al-Aam” and “Al-Sudani” newspapers and two private TV channels, claiming they had links Finance with the Bashir regime. This is while “the committee lacks judicial oversight and is being criticized as a political tool,” according to the same source.