Morocco’s leading human rights activists have warned of an assault on freedom of expression following the arrest of 15 journalists, bloggers, rappers and social media users in recent months.
Supporters of the detainees organised a protest on Thursday in front of the country’s parliament in capital Rabat to demand their release.
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The protest followed the publication of a report by the National Solidarity Committee, which sought to chronicle how authorities across the North African country increasingly clamped down on dissent during 2019, particularly on social media, which is widely considered to be the last remaining forum for Moroccans to speak freely.
The 15 are either facing charges, are on trial or have been convicted for crimes varying from insulting the king or institutions, to posting the lyrics of a popular rap song called Long Live the People, whose singer is spending one year in prison.
The report said that in December alone, Moroccan courts convicted six people, including a high-school student.
They were sentenced from six months to four years in prison for charges such as criticising living conditions in Morocco on Facebook.
Most recently, 19-year-old Hamza Asbaar from Southern Laayoune was sentenced to four years in prison for publishing a rap song deemed “offensive to sanctities”.
Verdicts on other cases are expected in the next few months.
The number of arrests related to free speech has more than doubled in the last 20 years, said journalist and activist Omar Radi, who is facing a trial himself over a tweet defending anti-government protesters.
Government spokesman Hassan Abyaba told reporters on Thursday that is a “difference between free speech and committing felonies”.
“Any citizen, be it a doctor, a teacher or a journalist, who commits felonies are punished by the law,” he said.