After the appearance of Moroccan journalist Omar Radi in court on rape charges, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urges the United Nations to take a stand publicly against the misuse of sex charges against journalists by the Moroccan authorities in an attempt to silence them.
RSF sent an urgent appeal today to the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Dubravka Šimonovic, asking her to issue a public condemnation of the misuse of sex charges against journalists who criticise the Moroccan authorities.
Allegations of rape or sexual assault must naturally be taken seriously and thoroughly investigated. However, RSF has a long list of elements that cast doubt on the credibility the allegations in some cases. RSF's appeal has the support of Moroccan feminist organizations.
"Accusing a critical voice of rape is a well-known known practice used by the Moroccan intelligence service," said Paul Coppin, the head of RSF's legal unit. "The method, which discredits journalists and deters supporters, seems to have been applied in Omar Radi's case, and in other recent cases involving journalists.
"Such methods neutralize critical journalists but also weaken the fight for women's rights. Therefore, RSF appeals urgently to the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women to condemn this dangerous misuse of rape accusations."
Radi, 34, has been investigating sensitive subjects for more than 10 years, making him a target of judicial harassment. Two days after Amnesty International published a report saying his phone was bugged by the authorities using sophisticated spyware, Radi was accused officially of "receiving funds from abroad" in connection with "intelligence services".
Before being taken into custody on 29 July, he was questioned 10 times by the police about spying allegations before eventually being accused of sexual assault. He has always maintained the relationship was consensual, which was backed up by an account from a colleague who was present at the party where the events occurred.
RSF's complaint to the UN has received support from several Moroccan feminist organizations which have expressed doubt about the charges against Omar Radi and other journalists who have faced sex charges in recent years.
Several leading feminists have told RSF they support the move, including Khadija Ryadi , the former head of the Moroccan Human Rights Association and co-ordinator of the Omar Radi support committee. In a report sent in support of RSF's referral to the UN, she refers to new methods of intimidation that have appeared recently in Morocco: "They concern morality, in particular allegations of sexual assault, human trafficking, adultery, illegal abortion and extra-marital sex, which is forbidden under Moroccan law."
According to observers, accusations of this kind are generally followed by smear campaigns orchestrated by media organizations close to the regime, "which are what the authorities are really aiming for, to ruin the person concerned, killing them symbolically by destroying their influence in society", said Ryadi. "And it also creates fear among others, causing a vacuum around the accused".
To support its referral, RSF has linked it to the manifesto of the feminist collective Khmissa which has publicly condemned "the exploitation of women by a government mouthpiece purely in order to wreak revenge on rights activists", and a petition by a Moroccan feminist collective which states: "Condemning rape, sexual violence and the exploitation of women's bodies means also refusing to see them used and abused for political purposes".
Besides the harassment to which Omar Radi has been subjected, suspicions about the sexual assault allegations have been aroused by other similar cases. In the past five years, at least four other journalists viewed as critical or troublesome by the government have also been convicted of sex charges.
Taoufik Bouachrine, owner of the daily Akhbar Al Yaoum who has been behind bars since February 2018, was sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment last October for human trafficking and rape, despite one of his alleged victims having denied in Moroccan and foreign media that she had made any such allegations against him, publicly accusing the police of putting words in her mouth.
She was sentenced to six months' imprisonment for giving false testimony and defamation as a result. She fled Morocco and has since become the target of a smear campaign by media outlets close to the Moroccan security services.
More recently, the editor-in-chief of the same newspaper, Souleiman Raissouni, was prosecuted for sexually assaulting a young activist of the LGBTQ community. He was arrested on 22 May on the basis of a verbal allegation rather than a formal complaint, in contravention of Moroccan law. A few days after these allegations came to light, "another young activist reported on her Facebook page that she had been asked to make a complaint against Souleiman, even though she had nothing whatsoever against the journalist", said Ryadi.
Eight months earlier, on 30 September 2019, his niece, Hajar Raissouni who also works at Akhbar Al Yaoum, was sentenced to a year's imprisonment for having had an abortion and for extra-marital sexual relations, both against the law in Morocco. She always denied the abortion allegation, describing the accusations as politically motivated and intended to discredit her. She said she was questioned by the police about stories she had written about the so-called "Hirak" protests in Morocco's northern Rif region and about her uncle's activities.
Besides these three cases targeting journalists who worked for the same newspaper, an earlier sex case was used to discredit another journalist in 2015. Hicham Mansouri, a member of the Moroccan Association of Investigative Journalism (AMJI), was sentenced to 10 months' imprisonment for "complicity in adultery" after police raided his home without a warrant. The journalist was subsequently questioned by officers without his lawyer on matters unrelated to adultery. While he was on remand, Mansouri was the subject of a smear campaign against which he unable to defend himself.
Morocco is ranked 133rd out of 180 countries and territories in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.