Monday, July 28, 2014

No End in Sight for Morocco's Media Blackout in Western Sahara

No End in Sight for Morocco's Media Blackout in Western Sahara Activists say Morocco is systematically targeting journalists who speak out against the brutal occupation of Western Sahara. Moroccan authorities have been accused of silencing journalists in the disputed territory of Western Sahara in order to cover up human rights abuses. A sparsely inhabited stretch of desert between Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria, Western Sahara has been administered by the Moroccan government for decades, despite a fervent independence movement led by the indigenous Sahrawi people. However, the political crisis in Western Sahara rarely hits international headlines, largely due to a media blackout in the disputed territory by Morocco's occupation forces, which control around 80 percent of the territory. Sahrawi journalist Mahmud Al-Haissan is the latest media worker to be targeted by Moroccan authorities. According to sources in the Moroccan occupied city of El Aaiun, Haissan was arrested on July 2, after reporting on a Sahrawi demonstration for the pro-independence television channel, RASDTV. Moroccan authorities have alleged Haissan was involved in a violent protest that left several police officers injured – a claim disputed by activists who spoke with teleSUR. Footage posted on Youtube by the Sahrawi media group Equipe Sahara purportedly shows security forces moving in to disperse the gathering. In the footage, riot police can be seen marching through a neighborhood throwing stones. The Sahrawi group isn't visible, but activists have alleged Moroccan security forces violently dispersed the gathering. A spokesperson for the El Aaiun-based Sahrawi Center For Media and Communication (SCMC) has told teleSUR that the Sahrawi gathering was “peaceful” until the police arrived and shut down the gathering with force. The SCMC has stated that one of their correspondents saw Haissan near a group of Sahrawi that had gathered on the street to “cheerfully celebrate the sport performance of the Algerian team in Brazil, in the football World Cup”. Haissan was allegedly arrested merely for reporting on the violent dispersal of the celebration. The SCMC spokesperson cannot be identified by teleSUR due to fears of reprisals by Moroccan authorities. According to the spokesperson, Haissan wasn't part of the demonstration, but did appear in the RASDTV report. “According to his family, the Sahrawi journalist Haissan was taken to the Police Prefecture for interrogation, and then he was brought before the public prosecutor the next day on the charges [of] obstruction of traffic, and attacking law enforcement officers,” the SCMC spokesperson stated. According to the SCMC, when Haissan's lawyers met with him three days later, they “reported seeing visible signs of torture on the prisoner’s [Haissans] body. El Haissan told them, on the other hand, that he had been intimidated and threatened by the public prosecutor who ordered his transfer to the Black Prison”. The Black Prison is Western Sahara's Bastille. The site became infamous throughout Western Sahara during the years of war between Morocco and the Sahrawi independence movement, the Polisario Front. Scores of Moroccans and Sahrawi alike were tortured on an industrial scale in the secretive prison. Even though the war is effectively over, the Black Prison still exists. The New York based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has urged the Moroccan government to drop charges against Haissan. In a statement issued earlier this month, the CPJ stated Haissan was “charged with protesting illegally, obstructing traffic, and attacking police officers, according to news reports”. “[Haissan's] family said the journalist had been arrested in retaliation [to] his criticism of police abuse during the demonstrations, according to media reports posted on YouTube,” the CPJ stated. Following Haissan's arrest during the morning after the demonstration, activists reported that Moroccan police surrounded Haissan's house “to discourage his colleagues from expressing solidarity with him,” the CPJ stated. Unfortunately, Haissan's case isn't an isolated incident, CPJ's Middle East and North Africa program coordinator Sherif Mansour told teleSUR. “Haissan's case is not unusual. As we mention in the alert, coverage of Western Sahara is one of the most sensitive issues in Morocco, according to CPJ research,” Mansour stated. Is Morocco Covering Up Human Rights Violations? Morocco has ruled most of Western Sahara with an iron fist since it invaded the territory in late 1975 – just months after the International Court of Justice advised that Western Sahara should be an independent state. Moroccan forces pushed the indigenous Polisario government into the territory's eastern fringe. The Polisario claims it has the support of most Sahrawi living under the Moroccan occupation, though Rabat denies this. A ceasefire has been in effect for over two decades, but the Sahrawi population living under the Moroccan occupation in the west of the territory regularly complains of repression and abuse. In May, Amnesty International warned that despite Moroccan pledges to stamp out human rights violations, security forces continue to commit abuses. In a report, Amnesty stated that “supporters of self-determination for Western Sahara” and other activists have reported “torture and other ill-treatment … particularly during pre-arraignment detention and interrogation following arrest by the police or gendarmerie”. Sahrawi activists have claimed Morocco is targeting journalists to cover up massive human rights abuses, and suppress independence advocates. In a recent letter to the United Nation's free speech rapporteur, the SCMC accused Moroccan forces of systematically targeting Sahrawi journalists responsible for the "exposure of the human rights violations committed by the Moroccan police against Sahrawi civilians".​ According to the CPJ, the current media blackout on Sahrawi protests dates back to 2004. The SCMC estimates that around 30 Sahrawi journalists have been “beaten and severely injured” by Moroccan security forces, and 13 have had equipment “confiscated or damaged” over the past four years. Scores of Sahrawi journalists have already been arrested this year, according to activists in El Aaiun. Four Sahrawi journalists – Sidi Sbai, Bouamoud Bachir, Jamour Mohamed and Tobali Hafed – were arrested in southern Morocco in February 11, according to the SCMC. “They were sentenced to four to six months in prison,” the SCMC spokesperson stated. These were small sentences compared to those handed down to Bachir Khadda and Hassan Dah. Khadda and Dah both worked for Equipe Media – the organization that secretly filmed Moroccan security forces moving in on the protest that led to Haissan's arrest. The two journalists have since been sentenced to 30 and 20 years. Haissan's fate is set to be decided in a Moroccan court next week. On the ground, activists are demanding an end to the curtain of silence hanging over the disputed territory. “Arbitrary arrests, intimidation, assaults against Sahrawi journalists by the Moroccan occupying authorities are attacks on freedom of expression and on freedom of the press,” SCMC warned.

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