Yet over the past few years, many Moroccans have experienced a yawning gap between those promises of greater freedom and a reality of continuing oppression. One of them, the journalist Omar Radi, now finds himself facing a term of up to one year in prison — ostensibly because of a single tweet.
That would be bad enough by itself. In fact, though, Radi’s case is emblematic of a much broader trend: the steady erosion of Morocco’s once-vibrant independent press. Dozens of other journalists and activists are already behind bars.
Radi’s problems began in April, when he tweeted a condemnation of a judge’s verdict on dozens of leading activists of the Hirak, a tenacious protest movement that began in the northern Rif region in October 2016. The protesters have been demanding social and economic reforms, asking for jobs, hospitals, better infrastructure. The judge sentenced each of the activists with up to 20 years in prison — verdicts that received widespread condemnation from international observers.
After Radi first posted the tweet critiquing the judge’s verdict in April, he was summoned the same month by police for questioning that lasted for several hours. He was then released but received no word about whether he would be facing charges. Eight months later, on Dec. 26, the public prosecutor decided to charge Radi with “insulting a public servant.”He faces his next hearing on Jan. 2, when the judge could pronounce a verdict.
I first met Radi in 2011, during the heyday of the February 20 movement, Morocco’s version of the Arab Spring. As a Moroccan American freelance journalist who just arrived in Rabat from D.C., I quickly discovered him to be one of the most respected journalists in the field. His commitment to integrity and honest journalism offered a hopeful model for Morocco’s future.
Back then, when the protests were first getting started in 2011, Radi’s contagious optimism left me believing that we were all going to see a more democratic Morocco within our lifetime. “The only dictators that won’t fall are the ones who are already dead,” he said once, on one of the many evenings when we and other fellow journalists gathered to discuss the day’s events.
Omar Radi is one of the rare journalists who keeps a close eye on the Moroccan monarchy’s massive financial holdings, documenting how King Mohammed VI continues amassing a fortune even as his advisers insist that he is “the king of the poor.” Financial news has serious political ramifications in a country where you cannot accumulate capital unless you are a friend or ally of the king.
If you’ve ever read an international feature on Morocco, whether on politics, culture or the economy, the chances are good that Radi was involved behind the scenes, either as a source or by just helping to assist the reporting process. His work is exceedingly invaluable, given that foreign reporters are targeted and expelled by authorities as often as local reporters are jailed and imprisoned.
In Morocco, merely trying to express one’s views has become a dangerous undertaking. Moroccan journalist Hamid El Mahdaoui is serving a three-year prison sentence. Rapper Mohamed Mounir, also known as Gnawi, is serving a year in prison. YouTuber Mohamed Sekkaki, also known as Moul Kaskita, was sentenced to four years in prison on the same day the authorities jailed Radi. The alleged “offense” committed in each case is the same: daring to air a political opinion. Radi and I had expressed our concerns over press freedom in a report published by the Committee to Protect Journalists earlier this year.
According to international press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders, Morocco ranks 135 out of 180 countries around the world. Take the case of the four journalists who conducted an investigation into a parliamentary commission concerning alleged corruption in the management of the national pension fund. All four of the reporters ended up facing charges in January 2018 and receiving suspended prison sentences. Websites and publications known for their investigative and critical reports have increasingly faced ad boycotts until their financial circumstances forced them to change their editorial line, while others have been simply shut down for their coverage.
Ironically, though Morocco was once held up as an example for its region, its political development now visibly lags behind that of its North African neighbors. Many of the promised reforms of 2011 exist only on paper, reinforcing the critiques of dissidents who argued that the proposed changes would do little more than deepen the monarchy’s power. While Tunisia has made great advances toward democracy and Algeria is undergoing a political transformation, Morocco remains stuck in its authoritarian ways.
If Omar Radi lived in a country that truly values press freedom, he would be an award-winning reporter, celebrated for his work and accomplishments. Instead, he sits in jail, awaiting what is sure to be yet another unfair trial against a journalist.