Moroccan investigative journalist Omar Radi, who at the time worked for the website Le Desk, the website's headquarters in Casablanca, Morocco, on September 18, 2015. Radi and other independent journalists told CPJ about a climate of pervasive surveillance and harassment in the country. (AP Photo/Abdeljalil Bounhar)
Moroccan investigative journalist Omar Radi, who at the time worked for the website Le Desk, the website's headquarters in Casablanca, Morocco, on September 18, 2015. Radi and other independent journalists told CPJ about a climate of pervasive surveillance and harassment in the country. (AP Photo/Abdeljalil Bounhar)

Moroccan independent journalists describe climate of pervasive surveillance, harassment

In March 2015, Hicham Mansouri emailed an anti-malware company, suspicious of possible signs that someone was able to access his device remotely, without permission. He remembers exchanging a few messages with the software company, but the correspondence was interrupted after a few days, when around 10 police officers in civilian clothes arrived at his home in Rabat to arrest him, he told CPJ from Paris, where he now lives as a political asylee.

Mansouri–who at the time was serving as project manager for the Moroccan Association for Investigative Journalism, coordinating the secure storytelling app StoryMaker, and investigating digital surveillance–was sentenced to prison for adultery, a criminal charge that CPJ denounced as trumped up in retaliation for his work. When he returned to his computer after his release in January 2016, he told CPJ, the emails documenting his suspicions were missing, apparently deleted from his account in his absence.

Several journalists interviewed by CPJ for this article described electronic devices malfunctioning in ways that they believe indicate they are under surveillance. Many reported having their private conversations publicized without consent in an apparent attempt to discredit their independent reporting; some left the country or the profession as a result. The surveillance and exodus of independent reporters have dealt a serious blow to press freedom in Morocco, where journalists have been harassed for decades.

“We reached a point today where we cannot say definitively that there is an independent press in Morocco,” California-based academic Samia Errazzouki told CPJ. “Absolutely not.”

Morocco’s kingdom is internationally lauded for championing moderate Islam and improving its record on gender equality, among other policies considered progressive for the region. Yet Errazzouki, who was formerly a journalist in Morocco, told CPJ that powerful state institutions known as the makhzen–the monarchy, government ministries, and security services, as well as the wealthy businessmen close to themhave been engaged in a gradual crackdown on independent media since the 1990s. Moroccan authorities have long manipulated the advertising market to encourage compliant coverage, according to CPJ research, and select independent journalists are subject to arrest and intimidation. The authorities also deploy sophisticated surveillance software, according to research by Errazzouki and international organizations who investigate spyware, like Privacy International and Citizen Lab.

In late 2016, a fishmonger in the city of al-Hoceima was fatally crushed by a garbage truck while attempting to retrieve merchandise confiscated by police, as news outlets documented, sparking economic and social protests across the northern Rif region. By December 2017, at least three journalists–Hamid al-Mahdaoui, Mohamed al-Asrihi, and Abdelkabir al-Hor–were imprisoned for covering the demonstrations, according to CPJ research.

Freelancer Ali Lmrabet travels frequently to his Moroccan hometown of Tetouan from Barcelona, Spain. Lmrabet writes commentary on Moroccan affairs, including the Rif protests. “Every time, they stick a virus on me, a type of spyware,” he told CPJ, referring to the Moroccan authorities he believes are trying to monitor his work. Lmrabet was sentenced to three years in prison for “insulting the king” in 2003; though pardoned in 2004, he was quickly banned from journalism for 10 years in 2005 for writing about the contested Western Sahara region.

Lmrabet described his former laptop exhibiting strange behavior even when he wasn’t using it, like opening files he didn’t recognize on screen, or activating the webcam by itself. Anti-virus software detected at least three malicious programs on that computer, he told CPJ. He follows strict security protocols, he said. “What I do is make their life difficult, but not impossible.”

Saida Elkamel, a Rabat-based reporter for the London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper, told CPJ she has sometimes noticed her voice echoing during cellphone calls to certain sources, like the father of Nasser Zefzafi, an activist who was imprisoned for 20 years for his role in leading the Rif protests. Her phone feels hot to the touch and quickly loses battery power at the same time, she said.

Samia Errazzouki told CPJ she also remembers hearing her voice echoing during phone calls throughout her journalism career in Rabat, where she was a correspondent for Reuters until 2017, and before that a stringer for The Associated Press. On more than one occasion, she said, she heard what sounded like a recording of one of her earlier phone conversations playing in the background of another call.

Errazzouki, who has studied government surveillance in Morocco, has a personal insight into the surveillance technology available to the state. While on the editorial team of the citizen journalist collective Mamfakinch in 2012, she told CPJ, she and her colleagues received an empty word document attached to an unexpected email. Privacy International reported that the attachment actually contained spyware developed by the Italian company Hacking Team. Privacy International described that spyware deployment in February 2015 as “a major investment that only a government could have made to target a group of citizen journalists.” A data breach that July resulted in the online publication of documents suggesting two Moroccan intelligence agencies–the High Council for National Defense and the Directorate of Territorial Surveillance–had purchased Hacking Team’s Remote Control System, which allows an owner to monitor all activity on a target’s device in real time, subsequent news reports said. (In late 2018, Citizen Lab separately said it had identified Pegasus spyware developed by the Israeli firm NSO Group communicating with an “operator that appears to focus on Morocco.”)

In 2015, Morocco’s Interior Ministry filed a defamation lawsuit against the Association des Droits Numériques (Digital Rights Association), a Moroccan nongovernmental organization, after the group was cited in Privacy International’s report on government surveillance in the country, according to news reports. CPJ was not able to determine the outcome of the lawsuit.

Morocco’s Ministry of Interior and National Defense Administration did not answer CPJ’s phone calls requesting comment. Morocco’s General Directorate for National Security, which oversees the General Directorate for Territorial Surveillance, answered two phone calls from CPJ, but then put CPJ on hold without ever picking up.

After the Hacking Team revelation, more people refused to speak to journalists, according to Omar Radi, a Casablanca-based investigative journalist. “There are fewer and fewer whistleblowers,” he said. Radi previously reported on digital surveillance in Morocco for the now-defunct independent news website Lakome, which was shut down after being blocked by Moroccan authorities in 2013. Radi currently provides digital security training for Moroccan journalists and activists.

Several journalists told CPJ they seldom use WhatsApp, fearing messages they send electronically could be used against them. Radi, who also reported on the Rif protests, told CPJ–citing information from prisoners’ family members and lawyers–that authorities referenced private WhatsApp messages while interrogating those jailed during the protests, journalists included.

Radi discontinued an investigation into an alleged land grab involving the Moroccan king after authorities threatened a source he had spoken with only by phone, he told CPJ. News website Le360, which is supportive of the Moroccan government, published an article soon after that phone call which, according to Radi, included information from that private conversation to preemptively address some of the issues the source had raised and cast the journalist in a negative light.

In another attempt to thwart independent media, Moroccan authorities have delayed or refused to issue press cards to certain journalists or news outlets under a new code introduced in 2016, according to news reports. Radi told CPJ he gave up trying to get a press card after an application was refused in 2013. While he still writes for foreign publications, he hasn’t managed to sell articles to local outlets for three years, he told CPJ. Errazzouki told CPJ she waited 11 months for her press card while working for the AP, and only received it when she brought the issue up to Morocco’s then-Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane after an interview in 2016.

Morocco’s Ministry of Communications did not respond to CPJ’s emailed request for comment.

“Many of the independent journalists I know have moved on to other career paths [or] have left the country,” Errazzouki told CPJ. Only a few, she said, have “held onto a glimmer of hope to try to build a [journalism] career.”