Morocco is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary national legislative system under which ultimate authority rests with King Mohammed VI, who presides over the Council of Ministers. The king shares executive authority with Head of Government (prime minister) Saadeddine El Othmani. According to the constitution, the king appoints the head of government from the political party with the most seats in parliament and approves members of the government nominated by the head of government. International and domestic observers judged the 2016 parliamentary elections credible and relatively free from irregularities.
The security apparatus includes several police and paramilitary organizations with overlapping authority. The National Police Force manages internal law enforcement in cities and reports to the Ministry of Interior. The Auxiliary Forces also report to the Ministry of Interior and support gendarmes and police. The Royal Gendarmerie, which reports to the Administration of National Defense, is responsible for law enforcement in rural regions and on national highways. The judicial police (investigative) branches of both the Royal Gendarmerie and the National Police report to the royal prosecutor and have the power to arrest individuals. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.
The Kingdom of Morocco claims the territory of Western Sahara and administers the territory that it controls. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro (POLISARIO), an organization that seeks the territory’s independence, disputes Morocco’s claim to sovereignty over the territory. Moroccan and POLISARIO forces fought intermittently from 1975, when Spain relinquished colonial authority over the territory, until a 1991 cease-fire and the establishment of a UN peacekeeping mission. After resignation of Personal Envoy of the Secretary General Horst Kohler in May 2019, the UN Security Council returned to one-year renewals of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara. As of December, the UN secretary-general had not yet appointed a new personal envoy and the mission mandate was extended for another year.
Significant human rights issues included: torture by some members of the security forces, although the government condemned the practice and made efforts to investigate and address any reports; allegations that there were political prisoners; serious restrictions on free expression, including criminalization of libel and certain content that criticized Islam, the monarchy, and the government’s position regarding territorial integrity; substantial interference with freedom of assembly and association; corruption; and criminalization of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex conduct.
There were few examples of investigations or prosecutions of human rights abuses by officials, whether in the security services or elsewhere in the government, which contributed to impunity.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution and law generally provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, although they criminalize and restrict some freedom of expression in the press and social media–specifically criticism of Islam, the institution of the monarchy, or the government’s positions regarding territorial integrity and Western Sahara. Such criticism can result in prosecution under the penal code, with punishments ranging from fines to prison time, despite the freedom of expression provided for in the press code. The press code applies only to journalists accredited by the department of communication, under Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sports, for speech or publications in the line of work; private speech by accredited journalists remains punishable under the penal code. According to the Freedom House 2020 Freedom in the World report, the press enjoyed a significant degree of freedom when reporting on economic and social policies, but authorities used an array of financial and legal mechanisms to punish critical journalists. International and domestic human rights groups criticized criminal prosecutions of journalists and publishers as well as libel suits, claiming that the government principally used these laws to restrict independent human rights groups, the press, and social media.
According to the UN secretary-general’s report on Western Sahara in September, the OHCHR remained concerned by reports alleging excessive surveillance of human rights defenders and journalists in Western Sahara. The report added that the OHCHR continued to receive reports of harassment and arbitrary arrests of journalists, bloggers, and human rights defenders covering human rights violations. Amnesty International stated Sahrawi human rights activists remained subject to intimidation, questioning, arrest, and intense surveillance that occasionally amounted to harassment.
Freedom of Speech: The law criminalizes criticism of Islam, of the legitimacy of the monarchy, of state institutions, of officials such as those in the military, and of the government’s positions regarding territorial integrity and Western Sahara. The government sometimes prosecuted persons who expressed criticism on these topics. Amnesty International and HRW highlighted dozens of cases in which freedom of expression was restricted. During the year the government displayed intolerance for individuals critical of the monarch, local authorities and Islam. According to the government, 359 individuals were specifically charged for criminal speech, including defamation, slander, and insult (see Libel/Slander Laws and National Security).
On January 16, the Laayoune Court of Appeals sustained a court of first instance conviction for Hamza Sbai but reduced the prison sentence from 36 months to eight months. Sbai was convicted under the penal code for his rap video posted on YouTube, titled We Understand. According to the Ministry of Interior, he was sentenced by the court in December 2019 to three years of prison and a fine for “insulting constitutional institutions.” Sbai was transferred from a prison in Laayoune to Bouizakarne in January and was released on August 28.
On March 23, parliament passed a law declaring a health emergency and setting a penalty of a three-month prison sentence for anyone disobeying “orders and decisions taken by public authorities” and for anyone “obstructing” through “writings, publications or photos” those decisions. As of May, 91, a total of 623 individuals were briefly detained or fined for breaking the new state of emergency law, of whom 558 remained in detention.
On March 28, the secretary general of the Presidency of the Public Prosecutor’s Office reported that police had arrested 56 individuals for publishing false information regarding COVID-19.
On May 5, local representatives of the Ministry of Interior in Tiflet reportedly assaulted two journalists while they were covering the COVID-19 lockdown’s impact on local market activity during Ramadan on behalf of a national Amazigh television station. Media reports indicated the officials verbally assaulted a female journalist before slapping her and pushing her to the ground, while her accompanying cameraman sustained a hand injury as he tried to prevent the authorities from confiscating his camera. On May 7, Reporters without Borders condemned the “unacceptable” assault and stated, “The coronavirus crisis must not be used as an excuse to harass journalists who are just trying to do their job.” On May 8, the ministry announced to the French Press Agency that it opened an internal investigation of the claims. The Ministry of Interior denied the claims of police intervention and allegations of assault against the journalist and cameraman.
In August, 400 artists and intellectuals wrote a manifesto denouncing police repression and defamation campaigns, exacerbated by the pandemic situation, citing “several cases of political imprisonment and harassment, including the arrest of journalists Omar Radi (see section 1.f.) and Hajar Raissouni (who was convicted of engaging in premarital sex and attempting to get an abortion before receiving a royal pardon in 2019), as well as repression against social movements.” When some decided to withdraw their signatures from the petition, other activists claimed they had been subjected to intimidation.
On April 27, authorities arrested Omar Naji, vice president of the AMDH Nador branch, and charged him with defamation and spreading false information after he posted on Facebook that local authorities were confiscating goods sold by local merchants in the informal economy. Naji was released on bail pending trial on June 2. The AMDH called Naji’s arrest an attack on freedom of expression, although Naji was found not guilty.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media, as well as partisan media, were active and expressed a variety of views within the restrictions of the law. The press code limits punishments for accredited journalists to fines. As of September 6, two journalists were prosecuted under the press code during the year, compared with two in all of 2019.
Two publishing directors of news websites were brought before the crown prosecutor in Mohammedia for allegedly publishing “fake news” on COVID-19. Five other individuals were arrested for sharing the same news via their Facebook accounts.
In March international NGOs drew attention to the government’s suspension of print newspapers during the outbreak of COVID-19 to reduce contact and the spread of the virus.
In March, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Mi Naima, a YouTuber with a large following, posted a video in which she claimed that COVID-19 did not exist. She was arrested and sentenced to one year in prison for “sharing fake news.”
On March 17, journalist Omar Radi was sentenced to a four-month suspended prison sentence and fine over a tweet in 2019 in which he criticized the judge who handed down prison sentences against activists of the Hirak movement (see section 1.f.).
On March 27, Kawtar Zaki and Abdelilah Sakhir, both of the online outlet Eljarida 24, received six-month suspended prison sentences and fines for publishing information from a parliamentary committee on corruption by elected officials. Hakim Benchamach, speaker of the upper chamber of parliament, filed the complaint that led to the case, according to Freedom House.
Actor Rafiq Boubker was prosecuted in May for blasphemy, insulting Islam, insulting a corporate body, and violating the state of emergency. In a video leaked on social media, an apparently intoxicated Boubker called an imam derogatory names and called on Moroccans to “pray with vodka”–leading to charges of “insulting the Islamic religion and undermining the sanctity of worship.” Boubker was arrested on the basis of complaints to the crown prosecutor. On July 14, the Ain Sebaa Court of First Instance in Casablanca was set to take place on November 10 but postponed for a later date.
Journalists continued to denounce the cumbersome administrative procedures and the long wait times to receive accreditation under the press code. Some members of the press claimed that journalists from outlets close to the government and palace received their credentials sooner than journalists from independent outlets. They claimed journalists waiting for their credentials had to operate without a press card in an ambiguous legal status, as the protections of the press code are only available to accredited journalists.
The government also enforced strict procedures governing journalists’ meetings with NGO representatives and political activists. Foreign journalists needed, but did not always receive, approval from the Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sports before meeting with political activists.
The trial for seven members of the Moroccan Association for Investigative Journalism, including Hicham Mansouri, Maati Monjib, and Hisham Almiraat, has been repeatedly postponed since 2015; the individuals had not been sentenced at year’s end. According to the Ministry of Justice, Mansouri, Monjib, and Almiraat were suspected of accepting foreign funds intended for acts threatening the internal security and territorial integrity of the country. The seven individuals were charged for posing a threat to the internal security of the country, fraud, managing an association exercising unauthorized acts, and accepting unauthorized foreign funds. On December 29, Maati Monjib was arrested on charges of embezzlement. He had been under a new investigation since October 7 on accusations of money laundering against him. His trial was scheduled to begin in January 2021.
Violence and Harassment: Authorities subjected some journalists to harassment and intimidation, including attempts to discredit them through harmful rumors about their personal lives. Journalists reported that selective prosecutions served as a mechanism for intimidation. According to Reporters without Borders, the government intimidated activists and journalists, often putting them on trial for matters seemingly unrelated to journalism or political activities.
According to media reports, authorities rejected one international journalist’s accreditation request during the year because he lacked a valid permit. The government stated that foreign media representatives who comply with local laws are allowed to perform their duties without interference and that allegations that authorities expelled foreign journalists were unsubstantiated.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Self-censorship and government restrictions on sensitive topics remained serious hurdles to the development of a free, independent, and investigative press. Publications and broadcast media require government accreditation, and the government may deny and revoke accreditation as well as suspend or confiscate publications that breach public order or criticize Islam, the institution of the monarchy, or the government’s positions on territorial integrity. While the government rarely censored the domestic press, it exerted pressure through written and verbal warnings and by pursuing legal cases that resulted in heavy fines and suspended publication. Such cases encouraged editors and journalists to self-censor and host opposition news sites on servers outside the country to avoid being shut down by the authorities. According to Freedom House, personal attacks and derogatory comments received by activists and opinion makers online, often in response to their criticism of government policies, also contributed to self-censorship.
Libel/Slander Laws: The press code includes provisions that permit the government to impose financial penalties on accredited journalists and publishers who violate restrictions related to defamation, libel, and insults. A court may impose a prison sentence if an accredited journalist is unable or unwilling to pay the fine.
Individuals not registered as journalists may be charged for defamation, libel, and slander under the criminal code, as can accredited journalists for their private actions.
Between November 2019 and January, NGOs reported 10 individuals were arrested for “offending public officials and institutions.”
National Security: The antiterrorism law provides for the arrest of individuals, including journalists, and filtering websites deemed to “disrupt public order by intimidation, terror, or violence.” The law assigns legal liability to the author and anyone who in any way helps the author to disseminate information deemed as a justification for acts of terrorism, which would include site owners and internet service providers. While the law was designed to combat terrorism, authorities retain the discretion to define terms such as “national security” and “public order,” under the penal code for which the government can seek fines of up to 200,000 s ($21,000) for publishing content online seen as disruptive to public order, with the maximum fine of 500,000 s ($52,000) if the content offends the military. Online speech offenses related to the monarchy, Islam, and Western Sahara, as well as threats to national security can carry prison sentences of two to six years.
The government did not disrupt access to the internet, but it did apply laws governing and restricting public speech and the press on the internet. The press code stipulates that online journalism is equivalent to print journalism. Laws on combatting terrorism permit the government to filter websites. According to Freedom House’s 2020 Freedom on the Net report, the government did not block or filter any political, social, or religious websites during the year. Nonetheless, security officials pressured activists to delete sensitive content. The same report indicated there has been an influx of progovernment online outlets that published false and defamatory news about dissidents. The report also noted there have been cases in which bloggers were arrested or imprisoned for content the government deemed politically sensitive. Social media and communication services, including YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, were available in the country, as were international blog-hosting services. Freedom House claimed, however, that unfair disbursement of advertising money, strict self-censorship, and continuing trials of journalists have prevented the emergence of a vibrant online media environment. According to the government, funds for advertisements derive from the private sector, not from the public sector. The government also repeatedly reminded online journalists to obey the law. The government also prosecuted individuals for expressing certain ideological views online, particularly related to protests in the northern Rif region.
According to Freedom House, numerous accounts were created on Twitter and Facebook with the apparent purpose of harassing, intimidating, and threatening activists who criticize authorities. Activists believed these progovernment commentators were also equipped with direct or indirect access to surveillance tools, since they often obtained private information about other users.
Many contributors working for online news outlets and many online news outlets themselves were unaccredited and therefore not covered under the press code for their publications. They remained subject to provisions of the antiterrorism law and the penal code that permit the government to jail and impose financial penalties on anyone who violates restrictions related to defamation, libel, and insults.
On April 27, a draft bill seeking to limit social media commentary promoting boycotts and businesses was leaked. After the draft language sparked rapid and broad condemnation by civil society, the minister of justice on May 3 withdrew the bill from consideration and initiated consultations on the proposed legislation with the CNDH and civil society. On May 12, during a video conference on human rights, CNDH president Amina Bouayach said she considered the bill significantly “outdated” and “unsuitable for Morocco,” reiterating that the CNDH had a clear stance on free speech online and viewed social media as “an incubator of freedoms.”
According to various NGOs, the government frequently hacked Sahrawi citizen journalists’ and bloggers’ social media accounts.