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Morocco: Crackdown on Popular Newspaper Al MassaePosted by: admin on Thu, 2011-06-09 13:39
As the social media revolutions unfold throughout the Arab world, reactions to the recent arrest of well-known Moroccan newspaper editor Rachid Nini highlight the continued importance of traditional media in promoting reform. Nini on 9 June was sentenced to a year in prison.
At the end of April, the government arrested and imprisoned Nini, editor of the daily Moroccan newspaper Al Massae. The charges against Nini include “propagating ideas that threaten the security of the homeland and its citizens,” “denigrating judicial rulings” and “misinformation against members of the security services.”
Nini was arrested after writing several editorials for Al Massae that criticized the government. His columns accused senior government officials of corruption, called for the dismantling of the nation’s Anti-Terror Law, and questioned the government’s account of who is responsible for terrorist attacks that occurred in the past several years. Some observers believe Nini was arrested in part because he has been unwilling to disclose the names of high-level sources who provided him with detailed information on corruption in senior levels of government.
Outpouring of Support for Nini
Nini’s arrest has generated vocal opposition from human rights groups and the Moroccan public. Calls for his immediate and unconditional release have been issued by the National Union of the Moroccan Press, Reporters Without Borders, domestic and foreign human rights organizations, the Moroccan Federation of Newspaper Publishers, civil society groups, several political parties, and members of the February 20 Youth Movement. Small-scale public protests and work stoppages to denounce Nini’s arrest have taken place in Rabat, Casablanca, Marrakech, Tangier, and several other cities. On Facebook, a “Committee for Solidarity with Rachid Nini” group has been formed and tens of other Facebook pages have been set up in support of the editor with some attracting thousands of visitors. The pages have names like “We are all Rachid Nini,” “Solidarity with Rachid Nini,” “Freedom for Rachid Nini” and “We call for the elimination of the terror law and the release of Rachid Nini.”
The attention generated by the arrest of a newspaper editor is counterintuitive. First, Al Massae is technically not accessible to a large number of Moroccans because of the high rate of illiteracy there (48 percent, according to the CIA World Factbook). Although the newspaper publishes pictures and has some videos on its website, the meat of the stories and the editorials Nini is famous for are detailed in text and, thus, out of the reach of those who cannot read. Additionally, it is a newspaper. In Morocco, other forms of media and information technology are much more popular, including mobile phones and televisions. Thus it is surprising that the government would view the editor of a print newspaper as a threat.
Given the limited reach of this very traditional media source, why has the government arrested Nini and why has his arrest generated so much attention?
The timing of Nini’s arrest is one reason he’s been in the spotlight. Police arrested Nini just two months after the King responded to large-scale protests for reform with unprecedented promises to relinquish part of his executive powers and revise the Constitution. For many, the arrest marks a step backward from these promises. In the view of the former president of the Association of Moroccan Journalists, for example, the arrest signals the desire among some in government to return to human rights abuses prevalent under the former King.
The legal basis for the government’s arrest of Nini is also sounding alarms. The government arrested him under criminal rather than journalism law, raising the hackles of Moroccan and foreign free-speech advocates. Critics say the precedent will encourage self-censorship and allows the government to pretend it supports journalistic freedoms while criminalizing free speech.
A Focus on Issues Affecting Ordinary Moroccans
The outcry over Nini’s arrest may stem in part from the populist slant of the articles Al Massae publishes. Nini and Al Massae regularly report on issues of concern to many Moroccans, such as education, health care, corruption, poverty, and abuses by the police and security forces. At the end of May, for example, the paper ran an article about new apartment buildings that had burned down in Fes because of lack of government oversight of construction. A week later there was a full-page article describing a planned mass suicide by workers in Khouribga who were fed up with their company’s inaction in responding to demands for increased wages and improved working conditions. Other articles in the paper have focused on medical mistakes and abuses, self-immolation by unemployed youth, drug addiction, problems with the educational sector, and protests among workers in a variety of industries and government.
Members of the February 20 Youth Movement likely support Nini because he has long criticized the government corruption that is a key part of the movement’s protest agenda. For years, Nini has published names of corrupt officials and detailed accusations of their misdeeds. In the most recent and well-publicized case, Al Massae accused a close associate of King Mohammed VI of corruption and violation of the laws of public procurement. In an April editorial, Nini accused the chief of intelligence of trying to hire Al Massae insiders to spy against the paper. Nini has also recently published articles critical of the director of the internal security apparatus, DST, and accused the police of torture. One blogger described Nini as the only Moroccan journalist who has the guts to shed light on corruption in the Moroccan military, intelligence forces, and among the King’s friends. According to the blogger, other independent journalists avoid even hinting at these issues for fear of being arrested.
In addition to all of these factors, the fact that Nini wrote for a mainstream media outlet, rather than for a blog or social networking site likely brought him much more attention than he would have otherwise received. Al Massae is the most widely read newspaper in the country, with 110,000 copies sold daily. While this is only a small fraction of Morocco’s population, the information contained in the paper invariably reaches many more Moroccans given the importance of word of mouth in the country.
Nini has been reporting for Al Massae since 2006 and has had many years to develop and reinforce an identity and narrative for the paper. Unlike a blogger, Nini has been able to work full-time promoting his agenda through editorials. His full-time paid staff has written articles that reinforce narratives of widespread corruption, lack of workers’ rights and ineffective local governance. While there are dozens of bloggers and YouTube videos that address these same problems, the authors generally do not have the time or resources needed reinforce and contextualize their narratives to create a national following that lasts for years.
The sentencing of Nini today to a year in prison is not surprising, given his refusal to cave on one of the government’s top demands -- that he disclose the confidential sources for his articles on corruption. No matter what the reaction are to this latest verdict, responses to the case thus far illustrates that even in an era of social media revolutions, a traditional media source can have resonance and become an important symbol of change.