What are the official reasons for your arrest on September 17, 2013, and do you think that the nature of your writing and criticism of Moroccan authorities and other regimes close to them played a role in what happened to you and your newspaper, Lakome?
The official reason for my arrest, as announced by the Moroccan judicial authorities, is having published a link to a video attributed to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, an act the authorities considered to be “inciting violence against Moroccan institutions.” I have been released on bail and am still being charged under the Anti-Terrorism Law, with the specific charge of “providing support for carrying out a terrorist crime, and praising [terrorist] acts shall be terrorist crimes.”
However, I think the arrest and charges are politically motivated, and have to do with Lakome’s independent editorial line and the series of articles and investigations that exposed the corruption within the Moroccan state and criticized the real ruling powers in the country and how they have handled major issues.
My articles were often controversial within Moroccan politics and the media. Because of their audacity and scathing criticism, these articles came under criticism from pro-government politicians and journalists, who labeled me a traitor and questioned my patriotism. These criticisms have even reached the Moroccan parliament. Online and print newspapers with questionable funding have been launched, dedicated to attacking all voices critical of the Moroccan authorities, myself included. I was and still am being subjected to a smear campaign targeting my reputation, dignity, honor, and credibility. Even when I filed libel and slander lawsuits in Moroccan courts, the cases were thrown out every time on flimsy grounds.
What about Lakome?
After I was detained, I put out a statement suspending the site until I regained my freedom, as it would not have been possible to maintain my editorial duties. However, the authorities took advantage of the suspension and of my statement to cut access to site throughout the country. This was a retaliatory measure that I’ve asked them to repeal, to no avail. In the meantime, as we wait for access to the first site, we are launching Lakome2 with the same editorial line.
You were released on bail somewhat unexpectedly, which surprised some. Were you expecting that, and what are the reasons for this “lenient treatment” of a citizen who has been officially accused of materially aiding terrorism?
What I have been certain of from the start is my innocence of all accusations leveled at me. I believe that, after an investigation, if there had been any suspicion that those accusations had any basis, then I would not have been released. This does not mean that I have been found innocent, since I am still being charged while temporarily free on bail. I maintain my innocence and I am waiting to be cleared of all charges and be set completely free.
What is the impact of your arrest (and previous pressures you’ve faced) on your work and more broadly on the freedom of the press in Morocco?
The pressure against and harassment of every independent editorial team did not start with me, nor will it end with me so long as there is not a democratic system in Morocco that respects the freedom of opinion and expression. This pressure has suffocated what’s been referred to as an independent press, which appeared in Morocco in the late 1990s.
I have been harassed and pressured since I first started an independent newspaper in 2005 called Al-Jarida Al-Ukhra. Also, when I was publishing manager of another newspaper called Al-Jarida Al-Oula, I was put on trial, there was a crackdown on its advertisers, and the newspaper subsequently closed due to these pressures in 2010. Since launching Lakome, only two weeks before the Arab Spring revolutions, we have been under a covert siege, with intensive electronic attacks against the website’s server by unknown actors—as well as government and pro-government institutions blocking the website. There has been an organized smear campaign by pro-government websites and other outlets, as well as ongoing questionings and other legal procedures, even after I was arrested and hit with grave and far-fetched charges.
Such actions have killed off the independent press in Morocco, pushing independent journalists into self-imposed exile, while turning the remaining privately owned press into “public relations agents.” The state-owned media, meanwhile, is still being used as a propaganda tool, similar to what happens with totalitarian and authoritarian regimes.
Is this targeting a message to Moroccan journalists?
Targeting independent journalists is a message, not just to the other journalists, but to all the free voices in Morocco demanding democracy, freedom, and dignity. If independent journalists bear the brunt of this, it’s because the country’s circumstances put them in the frontlines against the authorities, now that the role of opposition parties and trade unions has declined. This is not a position in which professional and independent journalists chose to be. However, as journalism takes on this role of providing checks and balances, the government and its supporters seek to portray journalists as an opposition force. This is a fallacy that aims to tarnish the credibility of an honest press and distort their mission.
The international community is under the impression that Morocco is somewhat open, but this experience shows otherwise. What can you say about that?
One of the weaknesses of the regime in Morocco, as with most authoritarian regimes, is its image abroad. So it always tries to present itself as a democratic, liberal regime open to the values of freedom, democracy, and pluralism, while respecting human rights, guaranteeing freedom of the press, and protecting freedom of expression.
My case is not the first, nor will it be the last case, to expose the falsehood of this image intended for foreign consumption.
How do you see the future of journalism in Morocco and people’s ability to freely express their views, not only about politics, but also about the power brokers in the regime and influential government agencies?
If anything positive has come out of Arab Spring it was that it broke down the “wall of fear” around the people who rose up against their authoritarian governments. Despite the gradual return of authoritarianism in Morocco, there are always voices within the independent press, among citizen journalists, on social networks, and within civil society speaking up to criticize, refuse, oppose, and protest, broadening the horizons for freedom without taboos or anathemas, without fear.
Fifteen years of Mohammed VI’s rule has proven that the government has no political will to liberalize the public media and guarantee independent journalism, the economic basis of which has been eliminated. The government has yet to put in place a journalism code, to ensure access to information, and to protect the freedoms won so far in the field of journalism, expression, protest, and opinion. These freedoms have been won at a heavy cost, and to continue to benefit from them, one must be ready to pay it.
Ali Anouzla is a leading journalist in Morocco whose arrest and trial has drawn national and international outrage. Maâti Monjib conducted this interview for Sada. This interview was translated from Arabic.