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OSC Report: Morocco — Bloggers Concerned for Free Speech After Facebook Arrest
GMP20080229420002 Morocco — OSC Report in English 29 Feb 08
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Morocco — Bloggers Fear Loss of Internet Freedom After Facebook Member Convicted
In the wake of Fouad Mourtada’s conviction for impersonating Prince Moulay Rachid on facebook.com, Moroccan bloggers have voiced concern that his arrest sets a precedent for repressing bloggers who were formerly allowed to flourish. In contrast to the outpouring of sentiment on the Internet, Morocco’s mainstream press has thus far displayed only limited attention to the case.
Moroccan security services arrested Fouad Mourtada, 26, an IT engineer from the southeastern town of Goulmima, on 6 February for creating a facebook.com profile in the name of King Mohammed VI’s brother, Prince Moulay Rachid on 15 January. Mourtada’s defenders argued that he clearly had no malicious intent since he used his home IP address instead of a cyber cafe and also argued that he did not expect his posting to be taken seriously since there are so many false celebrity profiles on facebook.com (French President Sarkozy has 41). Nevertheless, on 22 February, Mourtada was sentenced to three years in prison and a fine of 10,000 dirhams (approximately $1,350) (helpfouad.com). Beginning with prominent French-language blogger Larbi el Hilali on 7 February, Moroccan bloggers have charged that Mourtada’s arrest and conviction portends a government crackdown on Internet free speech.
- Writing on his blog, Larbi el Hilali alleged that a conviction would serve as “a great injustice and a monstrous legal precedent” (larbi.org, 19 February).
- Professor Driss Bakhkhat announced his retirement from publishing his prominent French-language political and technological blog MoTIC because: “I see the very dangerous and serious turn that the Fouad Mourtada affair is taking … If creating a false facebook profile merits this treatment, the next one could be a blogger” (MoTIC.blogspot.com, 18 February).
On 9 February, Mourtada’s family created a French- and English-language website, helpfouad.com, to publicize his case and press the government for clemency. Led by the family, both domestic and expatriate Moroccans are seeking to rally public and international support.
- Bloggers are reportedly trying to organize a protest outside the Moroccan Embassy in Paris scheduled for 1 March, using both blogs and a new group on facebook.com (larbi.org, 25 February).
- Twenty-six major Moroccan blogs participated in a 24-hour strike to show solidarity with Fouad Mourtada and his family on 19 February (helpfouad.com, 19 February).
Morocco’s blogging community is reportedly the largest and most active in North Africa. In the past, the government had censored Internet sites but has not been known to arrest any Moroccan citizens for Internet activities.
- The government had blocked YouTube in May and LiveJournal in June for showing material “considered insulting to Mohammed VI” and supporting the Polisario Front, respectively, but neither occasion resulted in arrests, with YouTube resurfacing after only six days (Alarabiya.com, 8 January).
- In early January, bloggers celebrated their freedom at a conference in Morocco. According to one interviewed at the conference: “I have not yet heard of a blog being censored in Morocco, in which case the whole blogosphere would mobilize” (Alarabiya.com, 8 January).
Press Comment Limited
In contrast to the intense reaction from the Moroccan blogging community, Morocco’s mainstream press has thus far offered limited reporting and coverage of the case.
- The independent Arabic-language daily Assabah alleged that Mourtada used the facebook.com profile to “pass himself off as the prince [and give] out a phone number to young women” (15 February).
- The independent French-language daily Aujourd’hui le Maroc predicted a royal pardon: “The prince would never allow a young Moroccan to lose his freedom and future over an affair like this” (18 February).
About Moroccan Blogosphere
The website of pan-Arab satellite television station Al-Arabiyah reported that Morocco has five times the number of blogs as Algeria, making it “the liveliest free speech zone in North Africa, with its Blogoma [blog aggregator site] hosting upwards of 30,000 sites” (Alarabiya.com, 8 January).