On November 21, 2022, Moroccan authorities arrested the 80-year-old president of the Rabat Bar Association and former human rights minister, Mohamed Ziane. According to a statement by the Moroccan Committee for the Support of Prisoners of Conscience, Ziane was arrested at his lawyer's office in Rabat by 20 plainclothes security officers who stormed the office and arrested him without presenting any judicial warrant.  

The Rabat Court of Appeals recently upheld a three-year sentence that Ziane had received earlier for charges that included “contempt of public officials and justice,” “broadcasting false news and allegations,” and “insulting instituted bodies.” The court relied on video statements Ziane made to the press, which included harsh criticism of the royal palace, security services, Prime Minister Aziz Akhannouch, and Minister Delegate to the Minister of Economy and Finance in charge of budget Fouzi Lekjaa, both of whom he accused of financial corruption and abuse of power.

For four years prior to his recent arrest, Ziane was subjected to a major defamation campaign led by state-aligned media operating in a constellation of websites. One of those sites, a website openly declaring affiliation with the security services, published a sex video showing Ziane naked in a bedroom with a woman. Ziane accused the Moroccan intelligence services of fabricating this footage to assassinate his image and destroy his reputation in the eyes of the conservative Moroccan public. 

Although Mohamed Ziane was close to the regime of the late King Hassan II, he has, in recent years, become famous for his outspoken challenges to the Moroccan security apparatus which incessantly crushed and muzzled dissidents. His harsh criticism of Moroccan authorities whom he accused of arresting participants in the Hirak El-Rif protests in 2017, and detaining journalists on trumped-up moral charges in 2018, is likely the main cause for his recent dilemma. The Moroccan Liberal Party (PLM), of which Ziane is president, called for the dissolution of the General Directorate of Territorial Surveillance (DGST) and the General Directorate of National Security (DGSN). The PLM issued a strongly worded statement condemning the publication of articles and photos encroaching on the personal lives of Moroccan citizens by some “websites known nationally and internationally for their proximity to security agencies.”

Zayan maintains that the national intelligence service has turned into a “political police” that specializes in surveilling dissidents and spying on their private lives through pervasive defamation campaigns issued by allied newspapers and websites. Such was the case with a number of Moroccan human rights defenders including Maati Monjib, Fouad Abdelmoumni, and Khadija Ryadi who were targeted and subjected to multiple defamatory articles containing—whether authentic or fabricated—intimate photos and information.

The “defamation media” usually threatens its targets with the publication of compromising sexual footage unless their criticism of the royal palace is modified or stopped. This happened to veteran human rights defender and economic researcher Fouad Abdelmoumni, who did not bow to defamatory newspaper threats and continued to criticize the royal palace, only to be shocked by the leak of several video clips purportedly showing him in sexual situations. 

According to Aboubakr Jamai, director of the International Relations Program at the American University Institute of Aix-en-Provence, Moroccan authoritarianism is now intimidating Moroccans through the use of new repressive tools that allow for spying on the private lives of journalists and politicians. Jamai believes media defamation does not only affect elites who oppose the regime or are independent of it, but also disturbs the psychology of people close to the authorities, where fear reigns over everyone. 

The “new method of repression” adopted by Moroccan authoritarianism was documented by Human Rights Watch in its July 2022 report titled “They’ll Get You No Matter What, Morocco’s Playbook to Crush Dissent.” This report asserts that Morocco's system of repression is based on a range of tactics aimed at “intimidating critical voices and potential opponents of the regime.”

These tactics include unfairly trying and sentencing independent journalists, such as in the cases of Taoufik Bouachrine who received a 15-year sentence, Omar Radi who received 6 years, and Soulaimane Raissouni who received 5 years. These three were also subject to smear campaigns by media loyal to the security services, digital surveillance, clandestine photography, physical intimidation, and close surveillance, as well as the targeting of their relatives.  

The deteriorating human rights situation in Morocco has coincided with Rabat's American-mediated normalization of relations with Israel under the Abraham Accords. It is clear that the Moroccan regime is planning to use Israeli support to influence Western governments—especially the US—and ensure their silence on human rights violations. The pro-regime media, in promoting this idea, argues that the road to Washington passes through Tel Aviv.

As the feeble anti-regime elites continue to shy away from direct confrontation with the royal palace and the security services, and in the absence of independent national newspapers, and the decline in the role of civil society associations, the Moroccan regime continues with its repressive methods to silence free voices and to surveil the community. 

The regime, however, might be behaving this way to hide its own weakness and fragility revealed by widespread public criticism, especially among young people who took to social media, after the recent wave of rising prices and the normalization of relations with Israel. 

Abdellatif El Hamamouchi is an investigative journalist and political science researcher from Morocco. He is a member of the Central Office of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights. Follow him on Twitter: @AHamamouchi