Silencing journalists: An alarming global trend

It’s increasingly common for governments to use terrorism charges and national security laws to silence opposing voices.

"The punishments meted out for "national security" violations in the US suggest that the judgment exercised by the state and in administering such sentences is not correlated with actual harm, but with, perhaps, the embarrassment caused," writes Jillian York [AP]

In Rabat, Morocco, both cheers and caution: Ali Anouzla, the journalist arrested last month and charged under terrorism statutes, has been released on bail. On the streets in front of Salé prison, where he was held, and on social media, supporters are cheering for Anouzla, but his fight is far from over. According to his defense lawyer, Hassan Semlali, Anouzla’s charges remain, and “he continues to maintain his innocence”.

“We are very thrilled that Anouzla has been released, even on bail,” says Miriyam Aouragh, a Moroccan activist and academic living in Oxford, “but he should not have been arrested in the first place. This is a mockery of our judiciary system and confirms the struggle for a balanced media is intimately connected to the struggle for democracy with basic human rights.”

Absurd case

From the beginning, the case has been fraught with absurdity. Anouzla, who is the co-founder of the popular online news site Lakome, was arrested after he linked to an article in the Spanish publication El Pais that contained a link to a YouTube video purportedly uploaded by the terrorist organisation al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). From there, authorities took an enormous leap, charging Anouzla with “material assistance” to a terrorist group, “defending terrorism”, and “inciting the execution of terrorist acts”. In addition to the charges against Anouzla, remains blocked, along with several mirrors of the site.

As Moroccan journalist Aida Alami has written, Anouzla is an exceptional journalist whose reporting on the case of a paedophile pardoned by Morocco’s king helped prompt protests that pushed the monarch to reverse his decision. This, along with Anouzla’s brave reporting on other topics over the years, had surely not escaped the eyes of authorities.

Anouzla’s case is emblematic of what is increasingly a global trend: The utilisation of terrorism and national security laws to silence bloggers and journalists.

Free speech and human rights organisations around the world have stood up to support Anouzla, while Moroccan organisations and publications have offered unprecedented support as well. “The only reason Anouzla received a bit of breathing space is because activists and worried journalists across the world raised their voice,” says Aouragh. “We need to understand and remind others that it matters that we speak out and organise.

The prosecution remains steadfast in their charges against Anouzla, charges that could land Anouzla in prison for up to 20 years.

Silencing the opposition

Despite its reputation for reform, the regime of King Mohammed VI has a history of silencing the opposition, and its efforts tend to start with journalists. Anouzla’s Lakome co-founder, Aboubakr Jamaï , was editor of Le Journal Hebdomodaire until that paper was shut down by authorities in 2010 under a pile of debts brought on by government meddling. In 2007, the government shut down edgy magazine Nichane for two months after it published a collection of popular Moroccan jokes, some of which were aimed at the monarchy. In 2009, Akhbar Al-Youm was banned for publishing a cartoon that involved the country’s flag, its editors charged with “defiling the national flag” and “failing to show deference to the prince”.

The creator of Nichane and former editor of TelQuel Ahmed Benchemsi has spoken out from personal experience against the government’s efforts to silence journalists. TelQuel, a popular French weekly, was known for its provocative editorial line, and the Moroccan government made Benchemsi suffer for it, going after him at every possible chance.

In 2009, 100,000 copies of both TelQuel and Nichane were seized and destroyed by police forces – for the second time – after TelQuel cited an opinion poll on the king’s public record, conducted jointly with French daily Le Monde. In an absurd twist, the poll had found 91 percent of Moroccans rated the monarch’s performance “positive” or “very positive”, but that didn’t stop authorities from going after Benchemsi and his magazine: A government spokesperson wrote an op-ed against the magazines and in the end, Benchemsi chose self-imposed exile over the shuttering of TelQuel.

It is therefore notable that, in September, TelQuel published a cover story in support of Ali Anouzla, possibly the first time a mainstream Moroccan publication has done so. The boldness of such a piece may indicate changing times for the Moroccan press and their willingness to speak out against such injustices.

A worrying trend

Anouzla’s case is emblematic of what is increasingly a global trend: The utilisation of terrorism and national security laws to silence bloggers and journalists. In Jordan, a publisher and editor are accused of “harming relations with another country” for linking to a video that showed a man – allegedly a member of Qatar’s royal family – drinking and dancing. In Ethiopia, journalists Eskinder Nega and Reeyot Alemu were charged with and sentenced under terrorism statutes. Algerian Abdelghani Aloui shared caricatures of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika on Facebook and was charged with terrorism for it. The list goes on.

In the US, national security has been increasingly invoked over the past few years as justification for heavily prosecuting whistleblowers. The prosecution of Chelsea Manning under the Espionage Act was on the grounds of harm to national security, despite the fact that no evidence of harm from the release of diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks has ever been demonstrated. Similarly, any case against Edward Snowden is predicated on the idea that his leaks to Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras regarding NSA’s mass surveillance of digital communication have been harmful to national security.

Speaking to Chelsea Manning’s case earlier this month, Noam Chomsky argued that any action can be justified as state security. The punishments meted out for “national security” violations in the US suggest that the judgment exercised by the state and in administering such sentences is not correlated with actual harm, but with, perhaps, the embarrassment caused. Case in point: At least four individuals sentenced for actual participation in terrorist activities abroad have been handed lighter sentences than Manning’s.

Without evidence of harm, the prosecution of whistleblowers in the US on grounds of national security, and the extreme sentences often afforded to them, is not that much different from the prosecutions on similar grounds that have become increasingly common around the world.

Jillian C York is a California-based writer and free speech activist, currently serving as the Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. Her work is centred on the intersection of technology and policy.