By Karina Piser
As Tunisia and Egypt underwent drastic political and social changes in early 2011, Morocco experienced a more subdued period of political transition. King Mohammed VI responded to February 2011 protests with a series of constitutional reforms, paying lip service to popular demands for reform and diluted monarchal authority. European and United States leaders lauded Mohammed VI’s constitutional project and reaffirmed support when he organized legislative elections in November 2011, bolstering a narrative of Moroccan stability in a region plagued by popular discontent and sectarian tension. But this congratulatory tone glossed over an electoral campaign period punctuated by the arrest and harassment of hundreds petitioning to boycott the vote, objecting to the King’s continued grasp on power and seemingly ingenuous reforms.
King Mohammed VI’s reforms repackaged his crackdown on political dissent. The new constitution, approved in a July 2011 referendum, was hardly evidence of a democratic shift—the king appointed an expert drafting committee comprised of monarchal advisors, guaranteeing continuity with his leadership rather than opting for a new representative strategy. The charter reflected this model, offering potential for institutional reform and power-sharing while preserving the king’s role as an ultimate arbiter and mandating he be respected.
A push for a strengthened “head of government,” judiciary, and legislature came alongside the king’s maintained ability to dissolve parliament. Mohammed VI’s responsiveness to public pressure and regional trends, rather than genuine willingness for change, underscored his reform project. The result is a new constitution that has used the pretext of reform as a means for the consolidation of monarchical power.
The 2011 constitution does include some promising language that, if translated to policy, could spark progress in Morocco, particularly through the media. Since its passage, however, the articles in the constitution that enshrine free speech have taken backseat to a repressive agenda that leaves journalists and activists few avenues for open expression. Just months after the referendum, popular columnist Rachid Nini was sentenced to one year in prison for “gravely offending” public officials—an early indicator that, absent a reformed penal code, constitutional amendments would do little.
If Nini’s plight proved that hurdles remained in heralding a new political era, events since have shown that the suppression of free speech is increasingly the norm in supposedly reformed Morocco. In blatant violation of the new charter’s Article 28, which protects press freedom from “any form of prior censorship,” the Communication Ministry has routinely banned foreign and national publications alike, on the grounds that they “inflict harm to the Islamic religion, the monarchical regime, [Morocco’s] territorial integrity or the respect due the King or the public order” as per the 2002 Press Code.
In another example, 24-year-old Abdessamad Haydour received a 3-year prison sentence for posting a video on Youtube that allegedly insulted the king. Human Rights Watch urged Moroccan authorities to release Haydour, arguing that its praiseworthy constitution will remain meaningless absent reforms to the penal and press codes, which remain intact today. The new Moroccan constitution will bear little effect absent political will to abide by its constraints.
Editor and journalist Ali Anouzla’s plight is among the most recent examples of Morocco’s ongoing crackdown on press freedom and displays a blatant disregard for international law. In September 2013, Anouzla reported that Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb had published a video online attacking the Moroccan monarchy in his magazine, Lakome, and was subsequently arrested for “inciting terrorism.” Although he was released on bail one month later, Anouzla continued to face charges under the terrorism law and risked a 20-year sentence, notably for “providing support for carrying out a terrorist crime, and praising [terrorist] acts shall be terrorist crimes.” While the episode can certainly be attributed to an unreformed legal code, Anouzla described the charges as “politically motivated” and linked to “Lakome’s independent editorial line and the series of articles and investigations that exposed the corruption within the Moroccan state.” Lakome remains blocked, despite significant pressure from Reporters Without Borders, Human Rights Watch, and other advocacy groups. On May 29, 2014, the judiciary upheld charges against Anouzla, issuing a one-month prison sentence and a fine.
Although Anouzla’s punishment was less severe than initially anticipated, his continued persecution reveals the tremendous hurdles that remain for Morocco’s highly controlled media landscape. The decision is, in itself, absurd; Anouzla was imprisoned for shedding light on a threat to Moroccan security. What authorities’ deemed as “propaganda” was, in fact, useful material that the monarchy could have considered when crafting their policy towards AQIM. The monarchy should thus recognize that easing its grasp on the press and adhering to international human rights standards could serve its own national interests.
European and United States leaders must firmly and consistently hold Mohammed VI accountable to his constitutional promises. In a 2011 briefing, analysts at the European Council on Foreign Relations qualified the European Union’s attitude towards Morocco as “divided, indifferent, and short-termist,” criticizing member-states’ privileging of commercial and security interests over institutional reform. While Morocco is undoubtedly a strategic ally in counter-terrorism and trade, the West should use these ties as political leverage for pushing a democratic agenda, rather than praising the King’s lackluster reforms “relatively” to the region.
If the West is genuinely invested in diffusing international human rights norms, influential nations must consistently advocate for real change in this arena. A widened media landscape is a critical point of departure to heralding a greater shift towards democratic standards in Morocco. The country’s 2011 Constitution provides a legal framework that could accommodate these changes, but absent implementation, Morocco’s journalists and bloggers will continue to be prosecuted for doing their jobs.
Karina Piser is a contributor to World Policy Journal. She holds a master's degree in International Security from Sciences Po in Paris, France.