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Morocco Censors the Web: Collateral Damage Allowed

Categories: Middle East & North Africa, Morocco, Citizen Media, Digital Activism, Freedom of Speech, Governance, Law, Politics, Technology

On the morning of October 19, many Moroccan netizens woke up to the blocking of a large number of websites, among them popular social media platforms Instagram and Pinterest. Noticeably, one of the main independent media outlets in Morocco, Lakome, has been censored. Targeting Lakome is actually the reason behind the wide blocking, operated by Maroc Télécom, the main Moroccan telephone and internet provider, and other, less influential companies.

Indeed, Lakome’s editor, Ali Anouzla, has been arrested on September 17 after he published an article containing a link to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) video. More precisely, the article was a report on AQIM's 40-minute propaganda video. The video dubbed Morocco the “kingdom of corruption and despotism,” and called for jihad (holy war) in the country, Anouzla wrote. The link to the video was in fact a link to the blog of a journalist with the Spanish daily El Pais. Anouzla was charged with terrorism [1] on September 25, and has since then been in pre-trial detention. Such an abusive treatment has generated worldwide support, translated through social media campaigns with the hashtag #FreeAnouzla and massive calls [2] to set the journalist free.

Meanwhile, Lakome.com was blocked as per alleged explicit demand of Anouzla himself. The story is murky, and various potentially interdependent events intertwine. Anouzla’s colleague and Lakome co-founder, Aboubakr Jamaï, explained [3] that, on October 14, Ali Anouzla has publicized through the website Goud.ma a decision to shut down the Lakome’s Arabic version. This is also the moment when Jamaï is informed that Anouzla has a new lawyer. His confusion is apparent [fr]:

La décision d'Ali me laissait d'autant plus perplexe que la manière dont elle a été exécutée nous était à moi et à Lakome particulièrement hostile. Pourquoi ce nouvel avocat a décidé de communiquer d'abord à travers Goud ?

Et pourquoi ne pas m'informer ? Je suis co-fondateur de Lakome et directeur de publication de son site francophone, et depuis le 26 septembre, directeur de publication de lakome arabophone sans que personne n'y trouve à redire. De plus, Ali avait jusqu'à ce lundi 14 octobre demandé avec insistance que le site continue de fonctionner.

Ali’s decision left me even more perplexed given that the way it’s been put to work is particularly hostile to both myself and Lakome. Why has this new lawyer decided to communicate through Goud first?

And why not inform me about it? I’m Lakome’s co-founder and editor of its French version; also, since September 26, I am editor of Lakome’s Arabic version, a situation nobody has opposed so far. Moreover, Ali had — until this Monday, October 14 — required that the website keeps on functioning.

Aboubakr Jamaï actually decided to keep the website active. On October 17, Lakome.com was, however, effectively blocked. Quickly, the team set up two alternative urls [4], lako.me and lakome.info, which were swiftly blocked as well [5]. This arbitrary movement clearly illustrates the fact that blocking Lakome is unlawful and politically driven. Mohamed Ezzouak explains [6] (Fr) that suspending Lakome as per Anouzla's demand should have been rejected by the public prosecutor or the National Agency for the Regulations of Telecoms because him being editor does not suffice to legitimate his ownership of the website. Ezzouak finally argues that “the speed of this new blocking [of the newly set-up domain names] demonstrates the authorities’ desire to silence the website at any cost.”

It is how on October 19, Lakome was blocked completely, a move decried [7] by netizen and human rights activist Yassir Kazar as “North Korea style.” The blocking has widened, causing impressive collateral damage:

Initial reports were quoting Tumblr as blocked as well, but it came out [13] the blogging platform was experiencing technical issues on its own side. Irony spread over Twitter as netizens were flagging (un)censored websites:

Youporn is still accessible

They have also cut trib.al for a reason I cannot comprehend, thus one is no longer able to click on @TheEconomist's links

Ruzzle [a word-smithing mobile phone game] censored. This time, it's clear, the regime wants us to remain idiots.

In a surprising move, French-based independent hackers news outlet Reflets.info was also blocked [21]:

Screenshot from blocked within Morocco website Reflets.info. Image from @vxroot [22]

Screenshot from blocked within Morocco website Reflets.info. Image from @vxroot

Two of its co-founders reacted, one of them addressing [23] the French Minister for Digital Economy, and the other asking Maroc Télécom [24] (Fr) for explanations. Reflets.info's blocking seems to be [25] (Fr) politically motivated as it has been firmly standing [26] behind Lakome and denouncing the Moroccan government's decision to censor it.

The censorship was hugely decried on Twitter:

Have a look at @vxroot's timeline if you want to admire censorship in Morocco. They have black-listed the services on which are based plenty of other sites 1/2

now, not only activists are concerned, but also admins, developers and ordinary web users of Amazon 2/2

He was indeed correct, as local entrepreneurs have been showing discontent [30] (Fr) about important services such as Amazon and Heroku being blocked thus directly impeding on the local economy.

On a more vindictive note, Twitter user @L_badikho invited hackers:

[I'm giving free ideas, 2) to hackers] take over a governmental website and install a Lakome mirror on it

Others, such as @sniper_ma, highlighted the negative impact in terms of image the country will have on the international scene:

This websites’ blocking will cost a lot in various global indicators. Kudos!

Quite timely congratulations were apparently also sent to the Moroccan government from China:

The Chinese Communist Party salutes the progress Morocco has completed in terms of internet freedom — MAP [Moroccan Press Agency]

According to personal contacts in Morocco, at the time of writing, the blocking seems to be country-wide for Lakome and Reflets.info while blocking of other services is patchy as it apparently depends on strict IP addresses. Some of the mirrors [34] set for Lakome are also censored [35]. There has been no official declaration yet.