- After yesterday's expulsion of two Norwegian journalists from Morocco that were to cover the Kingdom's occupation of Western Sahara, protests from abroad and within Morocco is growing. Even the Moroccan Press Union expresses anger and an association of Moroccans residing in Western Sahara calls the expulsion unnecessary.
Yesterday, two journalists of 'Stavanger Aftenblad', a leading regional daily in south-western Norway, were detained and later thrown out of Morocco despite having valid documents for committing journalistic work in the Kingdom. The two had an appointment to interview an opposition politician regarding the Western Sahara issue that same morning.
While the 'Stavanger Aftenblad' journalists only are the latest foreign journalists operating legally in Morocco to be expelled - in April this year, another Norwegian journalist was escorted to Mauritania while operating in Western Sahara - the current expulsion has obtained much international and local attention.
The France-based media watchdog group Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) today strongly condemned the Moroccan policy of expelling journalists "who comply with all the necessary formalities." According to RSF, "it is obvious that foreign journalists are followed and their phones tapped. These arrests and obstruction of press freedom are extremely serious," the group says.
The international media watchdogs have obtained unexpected support from within Morocco. The pro-government group 'Association for a Moroccan Sahara' (ASM) yesterday condemned the expulsion of the two Norwegian journalists as an unnecessary act. The association mainly groups Moroccans settled in the occupied territory.
The ASM in a press statement "questions the real motives behind this expulsion," adding it believes this only has happened "because the Sahara case is still treated as an issue of national security." The group refers to the fact that the occupied territory is effectively ruled by the Moroccan armed forces and national security authorities, thus disregarding the nascent democratic institutions elsewhere in the Kingdom.
- What do we have to hide from the international press, rhetorically asks ASM press spokesman Abdelouahed el Khalil. "Even if [the foreign journalists] are pro-Polisario, [the movement fighting for Western Sahara's independence], are we really so weak that we don't know how to turn this situation into our favour," he goes on asking.
Mr Khalil claims the expulsion only harms the image "of our territorial integrity and harms the image of a democratic Morocco." The association finally "demands the opening of an investigation and that the Moroccan parliament looks into this affair," to avoid similar incidents in the future.
Also the Moroccan Press Union, which normally is controlled by pro-government journalists, has protested the incident. In a forceful statement, the union condemns this "reactionary act" that doesn't have "any legal basis." The Moroccan government needed to "take on its responsibilities regarding these illegal act" by the national police, the press association demanded.
The strong-worded statement by the Press Union is a novelty in Moroccan public life. The national press is under fierce political control and the Union is dominated by pro-government representatives. Also, the issue of Western Sahara and acts by the police and the military forces are widely taboo in the national public debate. Breaking the ice on these taboos has earlier cost several journalists prison sentences.
- The fact that these two organisations dare to speak out this way against the Moroccan Police is evidence that there are cracks emerging in the official Moroccan propaganda wall surrounding the issues of Western Sahara and freedom of speech, the Norwegian Western Sahara activist Ronny Hansen tells afrol News. He agrees that the strong wording of the organisations' statements a unprecedented.
While the debate in Morocco has taken surprising turns, protests from abroad keep streaming in. First, the Norwegian Foreign Department protested the expulsion through its embassy in Rabat and Ministry spokesman Karsten Klepsvik called the decision "unacceptable". Also 'Stavanger Aftenblad' editor Tom Hetland strongly protested the expulsion of his journalists.
The Norwegian Support Committee for Western Sahara today joined the critics, saying the incident "again reveals the fundamentally reactionary nature of the Moroccan regime and that the same old paranoia remains reigning in their handling of anything remotely connected to the occupation of Western Sahara." The group adds that "anyone trying to shed light on this situation is brutally silenced."
- The international community not should allow this to continue, the Oslo-based group today told afrol News. "We now expect both the Norwegian government and others to forcefully condemn the expulsion of the journalists and demand free access of international observers, journalists and human rights workers to Western Sahara and Morocco," the group added.
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