On December 2, 2019, Ayoub Mahfoud — an 18-year-old Moroccan student living in the city of Meknes — was arrested by the Moroccan authorities and sentenced to three years in prison. His crime, as advocacy groups and local outlets have reported, was a Facebook post.
“Our dog the sixth, our ruler is unjust,” Mahfoud had written; a derogatory reference to King Mohammad VI, who wields near-absolute power in Morocco.
These were not Mahfoud’s own words; the post was a quote pulled from the popular song “Long Live the People” by rappers Weld L’griya 09, Lz3er, and Gnawi, which has become an anthem against the Moroccan regime. Regardless, Mahfoud was charged with offenses against the king and contempt of public officials. He appealed the ruling and is awaiting a final judgment.
Gnawi was indicted on charges of “insulting public officials,” according to Human Rights Watch.
A month before Mahfoud’s arrest, Moroccan authorities had arrested Gnawi, one of the three rappers behind “Long Live the People” — the song that Mahfoud quoted on his Facebook page. Gnawi was indicted on charges of “insulting public officials,” according to Human Rights Watch, for what authorities claim is an unrelated incident. He is hardly the first rapper to face prison time for anti-government messaging; in 2015, the rapper Othman Atiq (Mr. Crazy) was given several months in jail on similar charges.
Mahfoud is one of at least nine Moroccans — some activists, some unsuspecting teenagers — that over a span of five weeks at the end of 2019 were arrested and charged with crimes for social media posts. The crackdown sparked demonstrations in Morocco and drew global headlines — to little avail, it seems.
On February 5, Human Rights Watch released a detailed case list of those targeted, all of whom face prison time. These cases are illustrative of a larger pattern in Morocco, one that has gradually developed post-Arab spring: The regime’s tightening control of the digital sphere.
“An increasing number of Moroccans are taking to social media to express bold political opinions, including about the king, as is their right,” Ahmed Benchemsi, Middle East and North Africa communications director at Human Rights Watch said in the organization’s report.
“An increasing number of Moroccans are taking to social media to express bold political opinions, including about the king, as is their right.”
“As self-censorship erodes, the authorities have stepped in to frantically try to reinstate the red lines.”
Though the Moroccan regime likes to show off its window dressings of democracy — elections that do little to curb executive power, for example, or the country’s feeble press code — the kingdom has a long history of policing speech, both under the French protectorate and post-independence. Journalists are regularly targeted for any criticism of the monarchy or its rule over the disputed Western Sahara territory. Many major media outlets are state-owned; most private media practices self-censorship.
But for a time, the web provided some refuge for Moroccan activists and dissidents. During Morocco’s Arab spring — the February 20 movement — demonstrators organized digitally. In 2011, when Moroccans thronged the streets across the country demanding political reforms, citizen media was, from the outset, central to the demonstrations.
Take, for example, the media outlet “Mamfakinch” (its name deriving from a Moroccan expression that means “no concessions”). Mamfakinch was a digital collective of journalists and activists in Morocco that emerged just before the February 20 protests broke out across the country. Its website aggregated news and commentary on the protests and social issues in Morocco that other media would not publish; mere weeks after the website’s launch, it had racked up hundreds of thousands of page views.
At the time of the protests, Mamfakinch’s founders said, the platform was innovative. It promised a new, electronic home for resistance, a new sort of freedom of information. But the next year, Mamfakinch members were hit with a spyware attack — its origins almost certainly state-sponsored. Though public interest in the protests was already decreasing at the time, Mamfakinch co-founder Hisham Almiraat says the attacks, which allowed remote actors unfettered access to the bloggers’ computers, played a significant role in the website’s decline and ultimate closure in 2014.
“They poisoned this wonderful technology that allowed us to express ourselves anonymously and fearlessly.”
“They poisoned this wonderful technology that allowed us to express ourselves anonymously and fearlessly. They killed this. People started thinking ‘the rules have changed. I am not going to take any more risks,’” Almiraat told Privacy International in 2015.
Other such platforms faced similar challenges. The online news site Lakome — defining itself, like Mamfakinch, as a free and independent digital space — closed down after authorities brought charges against its editor-in-chief, Ali Anouzla, in 2013. Just weeks before, the website’s reporting on an unseemly royal pardon had given rise to massive protests.
Anouzla says he too was hacked, his phones tapped. It was clear that though journalism had gone digital, the web was hardly any refuge.
Social media, then, seemed poised to fill in the information gap left by both traditional media, still highly censored, and the early digital platforms, whose model had proven unsustainable. And to an extent, it has. Dissident musicians have seen their anti-regime music videos go viral. Irreverent talk shows find large audiences on YouTube. Activists and whistleblowers speak out on Twitter. Though Moroccans have faced charges for such social media activity over the years, the platforms are still accessible, widely used, and — for the most part — open forums.
This may be changing. In recent months, Moroccan authorities have appeared to be keeping closer tabs on social media and targeting critical posts more frequently — culminating in the December 2019 crackdown. In those five weeks, the nine Moroccans charged or jailed included not just activists but unknown citizens, as in the case of Mahfoud.
However, it is Mahfoud’s arrest, not for dedicated activism but for a single lyric, that has more serious implications for speech in Morocco. It shows what the heightened surveillance of social media could mean for the country. Morocco’s last frontier for free expression may be in peril.