The Moroccan king has been clever enough to promise reform whenever opposition pressure has built up since the protests of 2011. But he still maintains an iron grip on the media, as the arrest of one editor has shown.
The veneer of political reform in Morocco has been scratched in recent weeks by the case of Ali Anouzla. Anouzla, editor of the online news site Lakome.com, was arrested and charged with advocating terrorism and aiding terrorists in September after the site reported on an Islamist video that criticized the Moroccan regime.
The 41-minute video, released by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), was entitled "Morocco: Kingdom of Corruption and Despotism," and was notable both for its technical polish, and its concentration on Moroccan affairs - rather than routine al Qaeda references to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead, it drew on sources including TV news clips and Wikileaks documents to criticize the stark injustice in Moroccan society, before calling for jihadist uprising against the monarchy.
Though the Lakome article did not link directly to the video (rather to an article on Spanish news site El Pais that had embedded the video) Anouzla was arrested and charged with aiding terrorism. Despite being released on bail last Friday (25.10.2013), and greeted outside the prison by a crowd of supporters, the experienced journalist still faces charges that could put him in prison for up to 20 years.
Opposition opinion limited
Human rights groups quickly condemned the government's actions, with Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders calling Anouzla a prisoner of conscience and demanding his release. Eric Goldstein, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch, told DW that the arrest was essentially a warning: "The arrest of Ali Anouzla was a directive intended to intimidate journalists and remind them of the limits they must respect in Morocco."
Repression has often gone hand-in-hand with the promise of reform in Morocco. In the ferment of 2011, Rabat saw similar protests to those in Cairo, Tripoli, and Tunis, but King Mohammed VI avoided the widespread revolt that swept North Africa by moving quickly to promise constitutional reforms. But while he curtailed more serious human rights abuses committed in the past - such as the "disappearances" of opposition activists by the security forces - he was still determined to keep a tight control on opposition opinion.
"With respect to the press, there's a lot more talk than there is action," said Goldstein. "There is talk of reforming the press code, which was adopted in 2002 and contains prison terms as punishment for press offences. There are provisions in the penal code that also provide prison terms, and these continue to be applied against journalists and bloggers."
Reporting or promoting
Government politicians, and government-controlled media outlets, have condemned Anouzla for providing a link to the video in a country that has seen isolated Islamist terrorist attacks in the past few years. But Lakome rejected these concerns, insisting in a statement that the website had clearly stated that the video was "propaganda". "Even the act of broadcasting an AQIM video is a common practice among the international media," Lakome said.
"The article about the video was a news report. He was doing his job as a journalist," said Goldstein. "He was not advocating the content of the video. Moroccans have a right to know where the threats are coming from."
In a joint statement, over 60 human rights groups called on the Moroccan government to recognize the distinction between reporting on terrorism and promoting it, as defined by the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression in 2008: "Vague notions such as the provision of assisting communications in terrorism or extremism, the 'glorification' or the 'promotion' of terrorism or extremism, and the mere repetition of statements made by terrorists do not themselves constitute incitation and must not be penalized."
The reform sop
But the Moroccan king's repressive measures enjoy some degree of protection from the population, who still broadly support the king and the stability he provides. "While there is debate in Morocco on the need for reform, the one thing that is untouchable as far as press freedom is concerned is the monarchy," said Susi Dennison, North Africa specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Meanwhile, the palace controls all the real power in the country, and the king is head of the council of ministers, the Ulama council, and runs the military, security forces, and intelligence service.
Morocco wants closer trade ties with the EU
"[The political parties] are in government but they're not really in power," said Dennison. "So I think it's very unlikely that we're going to see any kind of reform agenda coming out of that government. There is some protest, but it's not at a level that can really impact on the political system."
On top of that, Mohammed VI is a canny ruler. "The king is quite clever. If you think of Morocco as being like a pressure cooker - basically every time he feels that pressure is getting too high, he lets off a little bit of steam," said Dennison. "The 2011 reforms didn't lead to him conceding very much power at all."
Equally, western governments are reluctant to criticize a country they regard as one of the few stable states in North Africa. This came to light at the end of last year, when Morocco was approved to begin negotiations for a comprehensive free trade agreement with the European Union. "This is something that the Moroccan palace is really keen to achieve, because it would underpin Morocco's status as the advance partner for Europe," said Dennison. "This would definitely be one way in to a discussion on reform, but at the moment the two things are passing completely in parallel, and the leverage is not being used."