How Morocco has weakened its press, pushing readers to social media for news

For David Alvarado, a Spanish journalist who has been covering North Africa for more than a decade, the real indication of how free journalists are to report in Morocco is which government ministry is watching most closely.

Officially, it’s the Ministry of Communications that issues press cards and can expel journalists or ban them from working here, says Mr. Alvarado, the former North African correspondent for Spanish-language CNN.

But in the past several years, he adds, the powerful Interior Ministry, responsible for national security, has been keeping tabs on him, calling to let him know that their agents saw him talking to people they didn’t like.

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“We live in a democracy,” Alvarado says in his tidy office in the capital, where he runs a media-consulting business. “We are free to vote in the election. But the regime restricts many things it doesn’t want.”

Last year, Morocco overhauled its speech and press laws, a move the country heralded as a major step toward a free press. The intent was to decriminalize all speech that does not incite violence.

But as a Human Rights Watch report noted, Morocco’s penal code undercuts the new laws. The judiciary hands out prison sentences for reporting it deems harmful to Islam, the king, or the country, which doesn’t leave much room for critical coverage of the most influential issues in Morocco.

The threat of harassment, arrest, fines, and suspension – as well as economic pressure from advertisers close to the monarchy – has stifled coverage of the government and of citizen protests, including the mostly peaceful demonstrations that have taken place in Morocco’s northern Rif region since a fish seller was crushed to death last year in a garbage truck as he tried to retrieve fish confiscated by police.

SELF-CENSORSHIP

Hamid El Mahdaoui, founder and editor-in-chief of an Arabic-language online news website that has since been shut down, was sentenced to three months in prison after being arrested in July while covering a banned protest. Several other journalists also have been arrested and at least one foreign journalist was deported after his coverage was published. International human rights organizations have called for their release.

As a consequence of such measures, says Abdelmalek El Kadoussi, a communication professor in Meknes, the majority of journalists have taken to practicing self-censorship to avoid getting in…

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