Morocco's inclination for wielding terrorism accusations against journalists and news outlets who report on extremist groups has extended to Spain, where authorities are investigating El País newspaper and one of its journalists at the behest of the Moroccan government.
Spain's public prosecutor opened an investigation into El País and former Maghreb correspondent Ignacio Cembrero following a criminal complaint filed by the Moroccan prime minister on December 20. The Moroccan government accuses the Spanish newspaper of inciting terrorism in relation to a blog post by Cembrero, published on the El País website in September 2013, which linked to a video about Morocco. The video had purportedly been posted online by the North African branch of Al-Qaeda.
On March 20, the prosecutor's office at the Audiencia Nacional, Spain's central criminal court, initiated the probe and contacted El País, the leading Spanish daily, requesting information about the link, the public prosecutor's office and a spokesman for El País both told CPJ. The newspaper complied with the request and is waiting to see a copy of the charges, pending a decision of a criminal judge to proceed with the complaint or drop it, Pedro Zuazua, communications director for El País, told CPJ.
"Obviously El País has not assisted Al Qaeda and we had no propagandistic goals whatsoever--we just conveyed truthful information with a clear public interest," Zuazua said.
The allegations against the Spanish newspaper come on the eve of the first official visit by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to Morocco, "a country considered an important U.S. ally in combatting radical Islamist ideology," according to Agence France-Presse.
Moroccan authorities announced their intention to file a criminal complaint against El País on September 17, 2013--the same day that Ali Anouzla, editor of the Arabic edition of the news website Lakome, was arrested in connection with the case. An article about terrorism and corruption in Morocco published by Lakome referred to the video, linking to Cembrero's post on his blog, Orilla Sur. The blog in turn linked to the video on YouTube, under the title "Morocco, the Kingdom of corruption and despotism." According to Cembrero and Lakome, it shows Abdelamalek Droukdal, a leader of the Maghreb franchise of Al-Qaeda, "advising" young Moroccans to join their ranks instead of "migrating to Spain in a patera," a reference to the small motorboats used by migrants crossing the Strait of Gibraltar.
The 41-minute video was widely commented on in Moroccan media and created concern among the country's authorities, which consider it the first video directly addressed to Moroccan society by Al-Qaeda's North African branch. Both Lakome and Cembrero qualified it as a propaganda tool, and El País removed the link from its website on September 17. It was later removed by YouTube as well, at the request of Moroccan authorities, according to Lakome. YouTube said the video was removed because it breached the company's policy on violence, according to local news sources. Nonetheless, Moroccan authorities are pursuing criminal actions against both journalists and their publications.
"The video attributed to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb remained live on several websites, including many English-language sites specializing in terrorism, and Morocco is not prosecuting them," Cembrero told CPJ. The veteran reporter is one of the most well-respected Maghreb correspondents in Europe, but on February 5, the newspaper told him that he would no longer cover North Africa, and he was reassigned to the Sunday features section. "I can't prove it, but I have no doubt in my mind that the newspaper's decision to reassign me is directly linked to Morocco's complaint," Cembrero told CPJ.
El País denied this assertion. "Our journalists are often moved from one desk to another, and those moves follow internal management decisions guided by no other motives than the journalistic ones," Zuazua told CPJ.
Anouzla was freed on bail on October 25, following calls for his release by human rights and press freedom groups, including CPJ. He is awaiting trial, which scheduled for May 20, and faces charges of "advocacy of acts amounting to terrorism offenses" and "providing assistance to perpetrators or accomplices of acts of terrorism," according to Morocco's public prosecutor's office.
The French edition of Lakome published an article on the same day as the Arabic edition that included a direct link to the YouTube video. The website is edited by Aboubakr Jamai, a Germany-based journalist who received CPJ's International Press Freedom Award in 2003. Jamai has not faced any official charges or harassment in connection with his article, he told CPJ, but he expressed concern about the implications of the Moroccan criminal complaint in Madrid.
"The Spanish prosecutor's decision to initiate an investigation needs to be denounced because it will embolden the Moroccan government against Anouzla. The prosecutor's decision is problematic as it is an ad hoc decision, since there are countless Al-Qaeda videos published in Spain without the Spanish government ever prosecuting," Jamai told CPJ.
CPJ research shows that the Moroccan government targets journalists and news outlets in connection with critical coverage of taboo subjects, such as the health of the king or the royal family. The use of 2003 anti-terror laws in the case against Anouzla is also a familiar tactic used by governments trying to quell criticism in the media. CPJ has tracked a significant rise in journalist imprisonments since 2000, a year before the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States fueled the expansion of anti-terror and national security laws worldwide.
"The Moroccan government is very aware of its international reputation and a deft public relations operator, and they want to hide the harsh reality of the loss of terrain for press freedom in the last 10 years," said Kamel Labidi, a Tunisian independent journalist and former CPJ consultant. "But they also need to prove that the Anouzla case is not an isolated one and that they take the threat of terrorism very seriously, even if this entails taking action against a well-respected newspaper as El País," he said.
In its annual census conducted on December 1, 2013, CPJ recorded 211 journalists in jail (the second worst year on record), 124 of whom were held on anti-terror or other anti-state charges. The year before, when the number of journalists in prison hit a record 232 cases, 132 were jailed under such charges. According to CPJ's analysis, governments exploit these laws to silence critical journalists covering sensitive issues such as insurgencies, political opposition, corruption, and ethnic minorities.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Borja Bergareche is a correspondent for Spanish newspaper ABC, a competitor of El País.