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Sentenced to One Year in Prison for ‘Inciting Protest,’ a Moroccan Journalist Goes on Hunger Strike

Protesters at a sit-in in Imzouren, 14km from the city of Al-Hoceima in the Rif region. Photo by AlhoceimasOfficiel. Used with permission.

Moroccan journalist Hamid El Mahdoui has gone on hunger strike after a court of appeal increased his prison sentence to one year.

In the early hours of 12 September and after a trial that lasted more than nine hours, the appeal court of Al Hoiceima issued a verdict that increased El Mahdaoui's sentence from three months to one year in jail, for giving a speech that they say incited others to protest and break the law under the country's penal code.

El Mahdoui is the director and editor-in-chief of the independent news website Badil.info. He was arrested by Moroccan authorities on 20 July in the Rif region, where he had traveled to cover protests, and was later convicted of inciting protest.

The primary piece of evidence used against him was a 19 July video filmed by a police officer that allegedly shows Mahdaoui inciting people to take part in a 20 July protest that had previously been banned by Moroccan authorities.

The rights to protest and assembly are guaranteed under the Moroccan constitution and the Law on Public Assemblies. Organizers are not required to apply for a prior authorization, but they should notify the authorities of the place, time and date of upcoming protest. However, authorities can ban a protest if they believe that it could disturb public order.

After the court announced a verdict on 12 September, Mahdoui decided to go on hunger strike to protest his unfair trial and the violation of his right to freedom of expression, his wife Bouchra El Khounchafi told the Moroccan edition of the HuffPost.

Al Hoceima and other cities in the Rif region have been shaken by protests since the death of fish vendor Mohsin Fekri last October. Mohsin Fekri was crushed to death by a garbage truck while trying to retrieve his fish, confiscated by local authorities. The protests have since grown into a “Hirak” or a movement for jobs and economic development, and against marginalization and corruption. In response, Moroccan authorities resorted to repression, arresting protesters and activists and cracking down on media coverage of the protests.

El Mahdaoui speaking in a video about the crackdown on protesters in El Hoceima. Source: Screenshot from a video uploaded on the journalist's YouTube channel on 28 June.

Local and international human rights groups say Mahdoui did not incite to protest, but only expressed his views about the government ban on the 20 July protest when passers-by who recognized him stopped him and started a conversation with him about the Hirak.

Human Rights Watch analyzed the video and read the transcript used as evidence in Mahdoui's trial:

According to a transcript of the video, Mahdaoui criticized the government’s decision to ban the July 20 protest, saying, “It is our right to protest in a peaceful and civilized manner; (…) I am oppressed and looked down upon, it is my right to express myself and demonstrate.”

Human Rights Watch watched the video and read the transcript and found nothing in either that contains a direct incitement by Mahdaoui to others to participate in the banned July 20 protest. Hajji, the lawyer, said that the court did not provide any other evidence than the video and transcript.

Mahdaoui's independent website, Badil.info, covers a variety of topics in Morocco including politics, human rights and corruption, and has been reporting on the protests in the Rif region.

Mahdaoui is also known for his outspoken online criticism of the Moroccan authorities. He has more than 97,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel where he provides commentary on the political and human rights situation in Morocco. Over the past months, videos uploaded to his channel included interviews with rights activists and families of arrested protesters, and footage showing police violence against Hirak protesters in El Hoceima and Rabat. On 25 June, Mahdoui published an interview with the parents of the movement's leader Nasser Zafzafi, who has been in jail since 29 May, after a public prosecutor ordered his arrest for interrupting a state-backed Friday sermon critical of the protest movement.

This is not the first time Moroccan authorities have gone after Mahdaoui in relation to his work as a journalist or for expressing himself. According to Reporters Without Borders,”he has been the subject of at least ten legal proceedings of various kinds, including defamation actions”. In June this year, Morocco's interior minister filed a criminal defamation complaint against Mahdaoui after the journalist published a video accusing him of corruption.

On 29 June 2015, a court in Casablanca sentenced him to a fourth-month suspended jail sentence, fined him 6,000 Moroccan Dirhams (640 USD) and ordered him to pay 10,000 Dirhams (around 1070 USD) in damages to the head of the general directorate of national security, for reports published on Badil about political activist  Karim Lachqar, who died while in police custody.

In August 2015, a criminal court in the city of Meknes ordered Badil to shut down for three months and fined Mahdoui 30,000 Dirhams (3,200 USD) for publishing a report on a car bombing in the city. Media reports of the bombing were later denied by the government.

Although the Moroccan government says that Mahdoui's arrest is not related to his work as a journalist, several other journalists have been harassed or arrested by Moroccan authorities for their coverage of the protests in the Rif region. Between 26 May and 22 July, Reporters Without Borders documented the arrests of seven citizen journalists and media workers in relation to their coverage of the Hirak. Morocco also resorted to deporting foreign journalists who were covering the protests, including two Spanish journalists working for El Correo Diplomatico and an Algerian journalist working for the Algiers-based French-speaking El-Watan newspaper.

By quadrupling Mahdoui's prison sentence, Moroccan authorities have shown that they are unwilling to end the media crackdown and create a safe environment for journalists to do their work amid the unrest in the Rif region. In the meantime, the journalist continues his hunger strike.

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