5 August 2012

Morocco: Surveillance a Fact of Life for Journalists in Morocco

Morocco adopted a new Constitution last year in which freedom of expression and press freedom featured prominently.

But, as our correspondent Ellen van de Bovenkamp knows from personal experience, nothing much has changed. She describes her struggle to work in a country where "press freedom" is a limited concept.

Just a few weeks after the draft of the new Constitution was announced, journalist Rachid Nini was arrested. He disappeared behind bars for writing articles critical of highly-placed persons. The court ruled that his articles had damaged them.

In Morocco, people talk about prison much as Dutch people might talk about being jobless: a tough period, but part of life. I don't think I'll ever get used to seeing jail as just one of life's burdens and as I had met Rachid a few times, I was shocked when he was sentenced to one year in prison.

Paranoia?

I have got used to other aspects of Moroccan life, and I've even adopted certain tactics. I'm careful about what I say on the phone and what I write in my e-mails. And when there's suddenly a security check at the airport, I get nervous about having a book with me that's banned in Morocco.

I have decided not to turn around when walking in the street, as it only would make me paranoid, but I know that there's someone following me sometimes, checking where I'm going and who I'm meeting. Perhaps I should be more precise about my appointments in my e-mails then those people wouldn't have to walk around town following me...

Mail intercepted

My first job in Morocco was with the Dutch embassy. When I had just started work there, strange things happened with my mail. My dad sent me a postcard with a long account of his travels. How nice, I thought, but how did this card reach me when it doesn't actually have my address on it? I started to pay attention to the envelopes which did reach me, and noticed that some of them had been resealed with tape, after having been torn open. Apparently, the mail had been opened after delivery.

Was that the doing of the moqaddem, the Interior Affairs official responsible for keeping abreast of what was going on in the neighbourhood? I never found out, and actually I didn't care that much.

Dangerous reputation

After I had been living in Rabat for a few weeks, a neighbour asked me nervously if I was in some kind of trouble. Two policemen in plain clothes had called on him to find out who was visiting me. They had spoken to several of my neighbours and had interviewed the parking attendant.

Now, making my neighbours think I'm dangerous was something quite different from checking my holiday greetings and telephone bills, and I wasn't happy about it at all. But when I told the neighbours I had just started to work at the embassy, they understood immediately why the police were asking about me. And fortunately, the police officers didn't come back again (not that I know of anyway...). And that's how I started to get used to living in a police state.

Security alert

After a while, 'they' were probably reassured by the things (not) mentioned in my mail, and my letters reached me in perfect shape again. But when I started to work as a journalist, the mail reading started up again pretty fast.

As it happened, my journalistic début coincided with the preliminary stirrings of the Arab spring, a time when all the security forces were on red alert. They were putting in more hours at the Ministry of Interior Affairs than at all the other ministries put together. When I started working as a journalist, an acquaintance who works with Interior Affairs began walking the other way whenever he sees me: imagine what could happen to him if his boss noticed him talking to a foreign journalist!

Silencing critics

It's a pity he won't talk to me anymore, that my mail is sometimes 'lost' for a couple of days and that my telephone connection is quite often interrupted, but then again, I really can't complain: the worst thing that could happen to me is spending a few hours in a police station or getting kicked out of the country.

For Moroccan journalists, it's a completely different story. Rachid Nini was released a few months ago and has announced that he's taking a break from journalism. Sending him to prison may have silenced him forever.

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