In theory, Law 88.13 of The Press and Publications Code of Morocco eliminates prison sentences for nonviolent speech offenses. According to this law, Moroccan journalists have the freedom to express their opinions of the government, the King, or their community. In theory, journalist Hajar Raissouni could not have been arrested for her political views and criticisms of the monarchy.
And she was not.
Instead, on August 31st, Raissouni was arrested for participating in extramarital sex and performing an illegal abortion—both practices which are punishable by an extended prison sentence. Her arrest caused an immediate national and international outcry, with hundreds of journalists and women protesting outside Rabat, Morocco’s capital. Protests heightened to a frenzy, when Raissouni was forced to conduct a gynecological exam against her will, threatening her safety and her personal rights. With all of this mounting pressure, and talk on the government’s restrictive policies regarding women, King Mohammed VI was forced to make a very public concession to preserve his carefully cultivated image. Raissouni, her fiancé, and her medical team were released from prison on October 16th.
To the world, this was seen as a success. Here, a legally conservative country from the Middle East—a region traditionally seen by the West as “backwards”—was willing to publicly advocate for a woman’s right to an abortion, a practice widely contested in even the ‘progressive’ United States. Following the Arab Spring, and with the recent crackdown on protests in other Middle Eastern countries, King Mohammed VI appeared to the world a beacon of hope; in his official statement regarding the release, he painted himself as a sovereign “concerned for preserving the future of the two fiancés.” In theory, the Moroccan government was listening and reacting to the public’s desires.
Nevertheless, the reality behind Raissouni’s arrest shatters the image King Mohammed VI has purposefully presented to the international community. Though her release is a very progressive step toward transparency between the people and the public, and should be seen as a positive jump forward, the justification behind her arrest showcases a frightening pattern for Morocco’s free speech liberties.
Since the Arab Spring protests in 2011, King Mohammed VI and his government have taken great care to exhibit themselves as level headed leaders, willing to usher the Middle East into a more contemporary era. The passage of the 2016 Press and Publication Code only reinforces the decisive changes the Moroccan government is making in its relationship with the public. Internationally, Morocco propagated its reputation of advancement by listening to its public. In reality, however, this supposed progress is merely a veneer behind which the Moroccan government uses other means to silence its opposition. They may not be permitted to arrest Raissouni for her critiques about the government directly, but there is no law stopping them from arresting her due to a multitude of other reasons.
And this is not an isolated incident. In fact, Raissouni is the 11th journalist imprisoned in Morocco since 2011, more than twice as many arrested as the previous decade entirely. It is interesting that this number more than doubled after 2011, when Morocco had allegedly begun changing their policy regarding freedom of expression.
Now, instead of directly arresting journalists for their critiques, Moroccan authorities have begun manipulating loopholes and excuses within their more stringent penal code to remove threats to their international reputation. He promised he would not, but King Mohammed VI continues to silence journalists that aim to shed light on the Moroccan government’s oversteps.
Taoufik Bouachrine, editor-in-chief of al-Jarida al-Oukhra—a news site commonly reproving of the King—is currently serving a 12-year sentence for human trafficking and sexual assault, despite there being limited connection to him directly. His trial was labeled “unfair” by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, yet he still remains behind bars.
Hicham Mansouri is another journalist who was convicted of adultery in 2015, and was imprisoned for 10 months. Ali Anouzla has been awaiting trial for over six years on charges of terrorism, and now Hajar Raissouni’s name has been added to the list. All of these journalists dared to comment on the King’s reaction to protests in Morocco, deaths of laborers, and the lack of rights for people with disabilities.
In a letter Raissouni sent from prison, though she was arrested on the basis of her interpersonal affairs, authorities questioned her specifically on her work as a journalist, and her impression of the King and his government. In Morocco, there are three strains journalists are expected not to target: the King, Islam, and Morocco’s claim to the Western Sahara. By targeting any of these three strains, in the government’s eyes, Raissouni inherently opened herself up to government intervention in a humiliating form.
The hypocrisy of the Moroccan government and the King infiltrates journalists’ faux freedom of expression. Under the pretense of progress, the government discredits journalists and their investigations, knowing that the King is more likely to be believed over journalists imprisoned for terrorism and adultery. This lack of expression not only limits the voice journalists provide to the public, but lessens the impact of the information they attempt to spread to the world. This creates a ripple effect, resulting in the government using a lack of women’s rights, a lack of rights for people with disabilities, and a lack of representation of different religions to further enforce a lack of free speech.
In theory, Hajar Raissouni was not arrested for her political views and writings. In theory, she should not have been arrested for rights over her own body. But the Moroccan government used these theories as justification to exercise frightening authority. By disguising this policing of speech under the cover of other laws, the King is able to extend his reach far beyond what the people and the international community are led to believe. This unrestricted power is a reflection of Morocco’s tumultuous past in a time the world believes Morocco to be moving forward.