Just before the launch of a major protest march in the northern Moroccan city of Al Hoceima this July, state security forces arrested prominent journalist and government critic Hamid al-Mahdaoui. His supposed crime: “inciting” people to participate in an “outlawed demonstration.”
Later that day, police in Al Hoceima deployed tear gas and blockades to break up a peaceful rally, arresting dozens of activists and injuring more in the process. It sent a clear message to sympathizers of so-called Al Hirak, a social movement based largely in the country’s Rif region, that public dissent will not be tolerated. Al Hirak was sparked after a fishmonger was crushed to death inside a trash compactor while trying to recover fish confiscated by police last October. Protesters have broadly condemned state corruption and called for development in infrastructure and public services.
The government’s response to Mahdaoui, editor in chief of independent news site Badil.info, was harsh and swift. The week following his arrest, a local court sentenced him to three months in prison. Then in September, following an appeal, his sentence was increased to one year. In the meantime, without Mahdaoui’s leadership, Badil.info has been shuttered, and the journalist is facing a second trial—this time, for allegedly damaging “state security.” The crime carries a maximum sentence of five years.
For journalists and human-rights observers in Morocco, Mahdaoui’s trials are just a small part of the state’s growing crackdown on free speech. In a country that maintains strong ties to Western powers and is often applauded for its relative liberalism, those that dare question the government line face a mounting set of legal and economic hurdles. Since the outbreak of the movement in Rif, observers say the repression has only increased: As it stands, seven other journalists are in prison today, including four citizen journalists and three media assistants, all of them detained after documenting ongoing protests.