Rabat , Morocco - Moroccan journalist Ali Anouzla was arraigned on Tuesday on terrorism-related charges in a case that has drawn widespread condemnation from human rights organisations and press freedom groups who say the charges are meant to stifle critical reporting.
This is not the first time Anouzla has irritated Moroccan authorities. In July, he noticed an unusual item posted on the online newspaper, Al Andalus Press: A Spanish pedophile convicted in Morocco to 30 years in prison was on a list of prisoners pardoned by the king.
He dug up the victim's lawyers. Days of tireless reporting followed. He wrote a story full of detail on the case. And what followed was public uproar which pushed the king to reverse his decision, and order the felon rearrested - a situation unprecedented in Morocco.
"Ali Anouzla is one of the most respected independent journalists in Morocco, his willingness to break taboos and criticize the authorities..."
The authorities, who at the time violently repressed a protest against the royal decision to pardon the man, did not stop reporters from doing their job - this in a country Freedom House says does not have a free press, and that ranks 136th in the Reporters Without Borders annual freedom of the press index.
Anouzla, editor of the online Arabic newspaper Lakome.com, knew the time for retribution would come. In September, the news site ran a story about Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) targeting Morocco, and criticising the excesses of the monarchy. Then, he included a link to an article from Spanish newspaper El Pais of a related video.
"Ali Anouzla is one of the most respected independent journalists in Morocco,"said Eric Glodstein, deputy director of Human Rights Watch in North Africa. "His willingness to break taboos and criticise the authorities, including the [Royal] palace, has led to a series of run-ins with the authorities, including a conviction and prison sentence."
Anouzla has a long record of criticising the monarchy: he rebuked the king for his long vacations earlier this year, questioned the monarchy's budget and has regularly reported on corruption within the elite.
"No Moroccan paper would recruit me today," he said once. In 2009, he was tried for writing an article about the king's health. Following the trial, his newspaper, Al Jarida al Oula, was shut down and he received a one-year suspended sentence.
After, he decided to try again and co-founded Lakome.com with Aboubakr Jamai, former editor of le Journal Hebdomadaire that was shut down by the authorities in early 2010.
"There was a great need for a free online paper," he said when he launched the site in 2010. "It's a choice I made and I am very aware of the consequences. But I am also ready to bear them."
Defending 'national security'
The two websites - in French and Arabic - combined get an estimate of more than three million visitors monthly.
"Moroccans have the right to know that a terrorist organisation is threatening their rulers," said Jamai, who runs the French version of Lakome, in a phone interview. "The accusation that Ali is promoting terrorism is absurd. Like other media outlets in the world in similar cases, we simply reported the story."
According to Omar Benjelloun, an attorney who represents Anouzla, his client was arrested early on September 17 at his house under the anti-terror law that took effect in 2003, following the Casablanca attacks that killed 45 people. Suspects under this law can be held without being charged for up to 12 days. Formal charges were made on Tuesday.
"Ali Anouzla risks a heavy sentence that can range up to six years of imprisonment if the court agrees he was complicit in promoting terrorism with the intent to disseminate AQIM's propaganda video," Benjelloun said. "The repressive nature of the anti-terror law is to be above all laws protecting freedoms."
Government spokesman Mustapha Khalfi told the press following the arrest it was justified on the grounds of national security.
"We have a security apparatus that defends and protects the Moroccans against the threats of terror and premeditated aggression against their physical integrity and their property," he said. "Spreading this video has a political impact because it infringes on the Moroccan model of peace and stability."
According to Jamai, the editor of the French version of Lakome, the Moroccan regime has become skillful in pressuring the press by cutting off or alternatively, flooding it, with advertising revenues.
Still, these websites that also suffer from a lack of consistent revenue have managed over the past three years to keep people informed in ways the Moroccan print press has failed to, barring a few exceptions.
Jailing the messenger won't make extremists go away, but it will intimidate other journalists who report on them.
"There has definitely a regression in the freedom of the press in the past 10 years," Jamai said. "We survive because we get a lot of support, but we haven't found yet a viable economic model."
The Moroccan government has put a great deal of resources into silencing dissidents and the press and has shut down numerous publications, critics said. Recently, a journalist was charged with criminal defamation for a report on corruption involving a high level minister. Also, several activists have been arrested over their online activities in the past year.
Meanwhile, organisations such as Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Reporters without Borders have all released statements asking for the immediate release of Anouzla.
"Lakome.com reported responsibly about a newsworthy topic: the first-ever recruitment video by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to target the Moroccan authorities," said Goldstein of Human Rights Watch.
"In arresting Anouzla, authorities have conflated reporting and inciting. Jailing the messenger won't make extremists go away, but it will intimidate other journalists who report on them."
Protests in support of Anouzla were held in Casablanca, Rabat and even in Paris, attended by politicians, journalists and members of civil society.
"We are asking for the immediate release of Ali Anouzla," said Fayrouz Yousfi, a 21-year-old political science student who protested in front of the Moroccan Embassy in Paris on Saturday. "He was jailed for doing his job. Morocco needs to let journalists work without harassing them daily."