Morocco authorities ramp up clampdown on social media critics


Since September 2019, the Moroccan authorities have arrested and prosecuted at least 10 activists, artists, or other citizens who did nothing but peacefully express critical opinions via Facebook posts, YouTube videos, or rap songs, Human Rights Watch and Moroccan Association for Human Rights said Wednesday, February 05.

Those arrested face charges such as showing a “lack of due respect for the king,” “defaming state institutions,” and “offending public officials.”

None of them were prosecuted under the Press and Publications Law, which is meant to govern offences related to all forms of public speech. Instead, all were prosecuted under the penal law, which, unlike the Press and Publications Law, punishes offenders with prison terms.

“An increasing number of Moroccans are taking to social media to express bold political opinions, including about the king, as is their right,” said Ahmed Benchemsi, Middle East and North Africa communications director at Human Rights Watch. “As self-censorship erodes, the authorities have stepped in to frantically try to reinstate the red lines.”

Those arrested include students, artists, citizen journalists, and social media commentators who have been arrested and charged for nonviolent, critical commentary on Moroccan authorities. Some have targeted the wealth and lifestyle of King Mohammed VI, contrasting it with what they perceive as the state’s failure to guarantee basic rights and economic opportunities for young Moroccans. Others encouraged people to participate in protests against socio-economic injustice.

On February 5, in partnership with the Moroccan Association for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch published a Case Listing of Moroccan citizens who were imprisoned or indicted recently in violation of their right to express themselves peacefully. This listing will be updated with new cases as documentation about them becomes available.

Omar Radi, a journalist, was briefly detained and faces up to a year in prison for criticizing a judge in a tweet. The operators of popular YouTube channels “Moul Kaskita ” and “We Love You, Morocco” were sentenced to four and three years in prison, respectively, for showing disrespect to the king. First instance courts convicted Ayoub Mahfoud and Hamza Sabbaar, both students, for the same offence and sentenced them to three years of prison each, even though Mahfoud was accused of doing nothing more than post lyrics of a song on Facebook and Sabbaar merely shared critical Facebook posts and chanted slogans inspired by a rap song he wrote in a football stadium.

Nonviolent criticism of state officials and policies is protected speech under international law, and particularly under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Morocco ratified in 1979.

Reacting to reports on the increase of people imprisoned over speech offences, government spokesman Hassan Abyaba said on January 09 that Morocco respects human rights, including free speech, but added that “there is a difference between freedom of expression and opinion, and committing a crime sanctioned by the law.”

“Expressing nonviolent opinions should never be a crime sanctioned by prison terms,” said Youssef Raissouni, secretary general of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights. “A country that takes seriously the international human rights treaties it signed should abolish its domestic speech-muzzling laws or at least stop enforcing them.” (Source: HRW)