Omar Radi's mother holds a poster of him at a September 22, 2020 demonstration in support of the journalist, who faces anti-state and rape charges, in Casablanca, Morocco. (AFP/Fadel Senna)

Morocco’s new tactic to punish journalists: charge them with sex crimes

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Moroccan journalists Taoufik BouachrineSoulaiman Raissouni, and Omar Radi have a lot in common. All three have a nose for corruption, penning op-eds or investigations alleging government abuse. And all three have been charged with or sentenced to prison for sex crimes. 

Press freedom advocates and the journalists’ family members told CPJ that Moroccan authorities are using trumped up sexual assault and “morals” charges to retaliate against these and other journalists for their reporting. And this has instilled a sense of fear among members of the press in a country that already had a reputation for surveilling and imprisoning journalists who report critically on the king or on protests

“Today, every journalist in the country — and there aren’t that many left — is scared of being targeted next,” Moroccan freelance journalist Aida Alami told CPJ over the phone. 

According to press freedom advocates, the recent spate of sex crimes cases represents a new tactic on the part of Moroccan authorities – one that comes in the wake of unkept promises of pro-media reform. In 2016, the country updated its press code to outlaw prison sentences for journalists, proof, Minister of Communications Mustafa al Khalfi said, that Morocco was on a “democratic path.”

But as Moroccan journalists predicted in interviews with CPJ at the time, the country continued to imprison journalists, often accusing them of anti-state activity. Now, sex crimes charges have become another tool for authorities to punish journalists – one that has the effect of dampening public support for the accused. 

“In general, when journalists were facing anti-state charges, they were considered heroes, gaining so much popularity. Today, when a journalist is accused of shameful crimes like rape, it is guaranteed that public opinion will perceive them as unethical,” Le Desk reporter Imad Stitou, who has been questioned as an accomplice to Radi, told CPJ via phone. 

Samia Errazzouki, a Moroccan former journalist based in the U.S., said this dynamic extends to the international realm. “Charging journalists with sexual assault is a tool to prevent international and national solidarity with these journalists, who are now perceived as rapists,” she said a phone call with CPJ.   

CPJ emailed the Moroccan Ministry of Justice for comment but did not receive a response. 

Two of the three journalists – Bouachrine and Raissouni – worked for Moroccan daily Akbhar al-Youm, which Alami told CPJ was one of the last bastions of critical media in the country. On March 14, the publication’s management announced in a statement on Bouachrine’s Facebook page that it was closing the outlet for financial reasons; it said Morocco denied the outlet emergency funding allocated to other media in the pandemic. 

Bouachrine, who was editor-in-chief, was arrested on February 23, 2018, from the Casablanca offices of the newspaper. Days earlier, he published an op-ed criticizing Moroccan Prime Minister Saadeddine al-Othmani for his alleged failure to improve infrastructure in rural areas. His wife, Asmae Moussaoui, told CPJ via phone she believes this article prompted the arrest. 

In November 2018, a Casablanca court sentenced Bouachrine to 12 years in prison and a fine of 200,000 dirhams (US$20,980) after convicting him on charges including sexual assault, rape, and human trafficking; in October 2019, the court increased his sentence to 15 years on these and other charges, according to CPJ research.

Moussaoui said Bouachrine’s initial trial showcased the flimsiness of the case against her husband — out of the 14 women the prosecutors had introduced as plaintiffs, only five appeared in court to support the accusations against him, while five others testified that Bouachrine never touched them.

One of these women was Afaf Bernani, a former reporter at Akhbar al-Youm. The day after Bouachrine’s arrest, police interrogated her for eight hours as a witness to Bouachrine’s alleged rape of another colleague in his office at the newspaper, she told CPJ via phone. 

After she insisted that she witnessed no such incident, police falsified her testimony to say that Bouachrine had raped her too, she said. In the courtroom, Bernani stood her ground. 

“I testified that he was innocent and that the police falsified my testimony. The prosecutor did not like that and somehow convinced the judge that I was suffering from Stockholm Syndrome,” she said. 

Her courtroom testimony cost her: In June 2018 she was sentenced to six months in prison for perjury and defamation, she said. She fled to Tunisia to escape arrest. 

Taoufik Bouachrine in 2009 (AFP)

“I testified that [Taoufik Bouachrine, pictured at left] was innocent and that the police falsified my testimony.” — Afaf Bernani 

(AFP)

Following Bouachrine’s arrest, journalist Soulaiman Raissouni replaced him as editor-in-chief at Akhbar al-Youm. Like his predecessor, Raissouni took on powerful figures in Morocco in his writing, leading the journalist to be surveilled, his wife Kholoud Mokhtari told CPJ via phone. 

“He used to receive phone calls and text messages from unknown numbers threatening him to stop writing about certain topics that he would be privately investigating, or he will be sorry,” she said. 

In columns in 2020, Raissouni accused the king of abusing his power and said the government was using COVID-19 relief payments to improve its image with the public. His niece and former Akhbar al-Youm reporter Hajar Raissouni told CPJ via phone that these articles may have drawn the attention of authorities in the lead up to his May 2020 arrest. 

Authorities charged Raissouni with the 2018 sexual assault of another man, Adam Muhammed, and detained the journalist until the completion of his trial, which is ongoing. Muhammed, who calls himself an “LGBTQI+Activist” on Facebook, told CPJ last year that he waited two years to file a complaint because he was mentally unprepared to come forward, as Morocco outlaws same-sex relations. Reached via messaging app, he declined to comment for this report.

Raissouni wasn’t the only journalist in the family to face a “morals” case. In September 2019, his niece Hajar Raissouni, who is referenced above, was sentenced to a year in prison for allegedly having sex outside marriage and an illegal abortion; advocates said the conviction was retaliatory for her journalism, according to news reports. She was released on a royal pardon the next month. 

Hajar Raissouni told CPJ that she believes her reporting for Akhbar al-Youm and the weekly newspaper Al-Ayam on anti-government protests in the northern Rif region, as well as her uncle’s work, made her a target.

The third journalist in prison on sex crimes charges, Radi, was arrested in July of last year as he was investigating land expropriation on a fellowship with the Bertha Foundation, a global rights group with offices in the U.K. and Geneva. An Amnesty International report alleged that the Moroccan government had hacked Radi’s phone using Israeli-made spyware for a year before his arrest; Moroccan authorities denied the allegations, according to Reuters

In the summer of 2020, the National Brigade of Judicial Police (BNPJ) summoned Radi, a reporter at Le Desk, 10 times on allegations that he spied for MI6, the British intelligence service; on the ninth summons, the BNPJ added rape allegations, as CPJ documented

On July 29, 2020, the BNPJ transferred Radi to the Casablanca Court of Appeal, which charged him with undermining state security by receiving foreign funding and collaborating with foreign intelligence as well as sexually assaulting and raping a woman. Radi’s trial is ongoing and he has not yet been sentenced. In a separate case, Radi is facing charges of public intoxication, defamation, and filming someone without their permission. 

“Omar was judicially harassed by [the BNPJ] for a whole month. When they failed to find evidence supporting their espionage allegations against him, they trapped him with this rape charge to imprison and silence him,” Dris Radi, Omar Radi’s father, told CPJ via phone. 

Radi’s accuser, Le Desk reporter Hafsa Boutahar, has gone public with her allegations in video interviews with state-aligned news websites Le 360 and Edito24. According to court documents which CPJ reviewed, she alleged that Radi raped her on July 12, 2020 at their boss’s home while other Le Desk colleagues, including Stitou, were asleep nearby. It was during Radi’s hearings on November 5 and 25 that prosecutors interrogated Stitou as a suspect and an accomplice in the alleged rape, he told CPJ at the time. 

CPJ attempted to contact Boutahar via two social media platforms but she did not respond and CPJ was unable to determine whether she saw the messages. 

Even if the three journalists are released from prison, their family members say it will be difficult for them to continue working in the field. 

“Morals are a very sensitive topic in Morocco. When authorities try a public figure based on a sex scandal, they win public opinion to their side. They are making sure that Soulaiman [Raissouni] loses his credibility as a journalist by defaming and humiliating him like that,” Mokhtari said.

“I had to transfer our children to another school,” said Moussaoui, Bouachrine’s wife. “They were constantly bullied by other kids in their old school. Can you imagine? Being a kid who gets called the child of a rapist every morning in school?” 

Today, other journalists in Morocco fear similar accusations. Maati Monjib, a freelance journalist and historian who is serving a one year prison sentence on charges of fraud and endangering state security, wrote on Facebook after an interrogation leading up to his arrest that he considered himself “very lucky” not to be accused of sex crimes. 

Meanwhile, a local women’s rights group has called foul. The feminist collective Khmissa said it was following “the Moroccan state’s ongoing instrumentalization of women in legal cases against independent journalists” and others with “great concern” in a September 2020 statement on Twitter. The group warned that such cases will impede the efforts of rape survivors to seek justice.

Stitou said that the sex crimes cases have taken a toll on journalists still practicing in Morocco. “The general climate of the press sector in the country has become discouraging for journalists to work under,” he said. “Today, there aren’t that many working journalists left in Morocco. They are either in prison or have left the country to escape being targeted.”