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Algeria, Morocco intensify crackdown on journalists

  • Published at 10:14 pm July 18th, 2021
Morocco journalist
A Moroccan activist chants slogans during a protest demanding the release of journalist Soulaimane Raissouni, in the capital Rabat on July 10, 2021 AFP

A Moroccan court is due to deliver a verdict in the trial of rights activist Omar Radi who has been in detention for almost a year

Although they are bitter rivals on many issues, North African neighbours Morocco and Algeria appear to have one thing in common: muzzling the press.

A Moroccan court is due to deliver a verdict in the trial of rights activist Omar Radi who has been in detention for almost a year on charges of espionage and rape, which he denies.

The case, in a closed-doors trial criticized by human rights watchdogs, comes on the heels of a July 10 five-year jail sentence against Moroccan journalist Soulaimane Raissouni for indecent assault.

Authorities in both Morocco and Algeria have detained and put on trial several journalists on charges ranging from harming national interests to sexual assault, and their courts have imposed stiff sentences.

These measures have sparked international condemnation while critics at home say the trials are politically motivated. Authorities, however, insist the judiciary is independent.

In Algeria, which has been rocked by intermittent pro-democracy protests since 2019, press freedoms are also being flouted, rights groups say.

Prominent Algerian journalist Khaled Drareni was sentenced to two years in jail in September for "inciting an unarmed gathering" and "endangering national unity."

"In the Algeria of 2021, a word can land you in prison, you have to be careful with anything you say or write," said Drareni, freed in February under a presidential pardon for detainees of the Hirak protest movement.

The head of media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Christophe Deloire, is a vocal critic of the treatment of journalists in both Algeria and Morocco.

'Dislike bold journalism'

RSF has ranked Algeria 146 out of 180 countries and territories in its 2021 World Press Freedom Index, while Morocco was at 136.

"In Algeria... and Morocco... the judicial system is being used to help silence journalists," the report said.

Human Rights Watch's acting executive director for the Middle East and North Africa, Eric Goldstein, sounded the alarm back in August 2020 ahead of the verdict against Drareni.

"Morocco and Algeria are neighbours and rivals... vying for diplomatic supremacy in the Maghreb region, sparring over Western Sahara, and insulting each other's governments daily via state-influenced media," he said in a statement.

"Algerian and Moroccan authorities might compete in many domains, but when it comes to disliking bold journalism and commentary, they agree," he added.

"Morocco's modus operandi is to file a host of specific criminal charges, while the Algerian authorities prefer vaguely defined penal code offences," Goldstein said.

The sentence against Drareni, a symbol of the struggle for press freedoms who worked for French-language TV5 and media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), outraged fellow journalists.

Drareni was arrested in Algiers in March 2020 while covering the pro-democracy Hirak movement, which swept former strongman Abdelaziz Bouteflika from power in 2019.

The protests continued after Bouteflika's ouster, with demonstrators demanding a sweeping overhaul of a ruling system in place since Algeria's 1962 independence from France.