“Tomorrow Will Have to be Earned”: A Q&A with Ali Anouzla
Originally Published on Sampsonia Way Magazine
by Emily Sterk
Ali Anouzla is an independent Moroccan journalist and the co-founder of the independent online media platform Lakome2, censored in Morocco for its critical reporting. Over the past decade, Anouzla has been the target of the Moroccan authorities who attempt to quash free expression, despite the fact that press freedom is guaranteed under Morocco’s constitution. Anouzla has been tried a number of times over the course of the past several years, but he continues undaunted in his work as a journalist. Anouzla is currently living in Hamburg as a guest of the Hamburg Foundation for Politically Persecuted People.
In this interview, conducted via email with Sampsonia Way, Ali Anouzla talks openly about his political persecution and how it has influenced his reporting, including how he managed to continue publishing Lakome even after the authorities shuttered the magazine.
In 2009 you were sued by ex-Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi. What was your life like before the lawsuit? After it?
The trial of Mr. Gaddafi was not the first in my professional career, but it was the strangest. It was the prosecutor of my country who made a complaint against me for insulting the Head of State but, once in front of the judge, a lawyer appeared as the representative of the guide of the Libyan revolution and asked for a billion centimes (about one million USD) in compensation. And during the entire trial, which only lasted a single session, the lawyer for Mr. Gaddafi interrupted the judge when he talked about the Head of State, reminding him that his client was not a head of state but the supreme guide of the Libyan revolution. In spite of all that, I was condemned to a one-year suspended sentence in prison and a fine of a million Moroccan dirhams (equivalent to about $111,000 USD), which did not please Mr. Gaddafi, who had humiliated an official Moroccan delegation that had gone to ask his forgiveness in Bedouin tent. After the death of Gaddafi, an appeals court acquitted me without even convening me or the lawyers who had voluntarily defended me. The decision appeared in the press, which shows how independent justice is in my country!
In 2009 you were also sentenced to two months in jail and a fine of 200,000 dirhams (approximately $54,400 USD) for “defamation” and “insulting the judiciary” as Managing Editor of the independent daily Al-Jarida al-Oula. Was this a politically motivated sentence due to your prior trial with Gaddafi and what were its effects?
The charges came from another trial for having written another article in which I questioned the independence of Moroccan justice, a justice that was always exploited in order to silence free speech and criticism.
It was the final straw for the daily’s finances. In Morocco, the major advertisers sometimes don’t need any orders: once you’ve been viewed badly by the authorities, they boycott us out of fear of being punished themselves.
For someone who has spent his entire career in journalism, once I no longer had a newspaper, I had to immigrate to the web to found Lakome in 2010. The price was less expensive and the room for freedom was greater. It was primarily not a choice but a refuge.
In 2011 a new constitution passed that claimed it would guarantee freedom of the press. What was your reaction to the new constitution? Did you believe it would guarantee freedom of the press?
I have always said and written that the preamble of the Moroccan constitution is a very beautiful text that praises great human values, especially liberty and human rights. But it remains a nice text that does not reflect real life in Morocco. The Moroccan constitution was written by a commission appointed by the King, but they ultimately did not publish it. Therefore, it is not a true social contract between the people and their monarch. Leaving the text vague also allows you interpret it as you please.
In Morocco we always have to endure this duality between texts and real life for lack of a real political will. Sometimes we feel that the texts are for external consumption and real life is for Moroccans to endure.
In Morocco, taboos are found everywhere in the law, religion, and society. The job of journalism, particularly independent and investigative journalism, is like walking in a minefield: you don’t know when it is going to explode under your feet. A false step, and you are beyond the infamous “red lines.”
During my entire career as a journalist I have dealt with and raised issues and every taboo: subjects relating to the health of the King, his wealth, his investments, his colossal budget, his absenteeism, his long vacations abroad, in addition to the issue of the Sahara, the taboos of religion and society, the lack of democracy in Morocco, and the attacks on the rights of man, torture, corruption.
Did you ever consider avoiding reporting on issues that could be perceived as criticism of the monarchy as a result of this new legislation?
Yes, quite a few times. And I even went to court, where the trials are still on-going. Sometimes they are press attacks coming from a close government source, which are libelous attacks that concern my private life.
In August of 2013 you revealed that Mohammed VI had pardoned 48 Spanish prisoners in Morocco for politically motivated purposes, including releasing a pedophile from prison. How did you learn about the scandal?
Yes, it was a scoop that we revealed on our website Lakome.com. We learned about the information from prisoners who had contacted us to challenge the double standard policy of royal pardon. After that, we verified the information with lawyers of the victims and with the Spanish ambassador in Rabat.
Did you anticipate that writing this story would lead to public protests?
Yes, we were able to observe the reactions of readers on the Facebook page of our website. There were fierce and angry reactions from people who didn’t accept that as a royal act. Then there were social networks that took over and drew people out into the streets to protest. It was bigger than us, and it went well beyond us. There was a snowball effect.
We were only doing our duty as journalists. We didn’t expect to change the world. Bringing elements that are truthful to the reader and likely helping him to form his own opinion independently of all influence, that is, I think, the true message of independent and investigative journalism. It isn’t our duty to change the world but to bring people closer to their real life. It is for them to judge from that.
In September of 2013 you were arrested for publishing a video by Al Qaeda on the Francophone version of Lakome. What was the intention behind including a link of a video by Al Qaeda? Why was this video an essential component of the story?
First of all I did not directly put the link to the video on our website. I made a link from the website of the Spanish newspaper El Pais, which had made the link to the video. For me, El Pais was the source of our information, and we indicated that it was a propaganda video. We had no other intention than informing the Moroccan public about this threat. My points of view against violence, religious fanaticism, and terrorism have been made public. I vigorously condemn them and will not stop criticizing what produces threats, insults, and libel from people who do not share the same point of view as I defend: namely, freedom, democracy, liberalism, secularism and modernity.
My arrest was the culmination of previous revelations I made about the monarchy. A revenge. They couldn’t attack me on my points of view, so they looked for an alibi to discredit me.
Is the Moroccan government using you as an example for other journalists? To what purpose?
Yes, it was to intimidate the other journalists. Today there is no longer an independent press in Morocco. The few independent journalists who work in Morocco do so with a lot of self-censorship. Self-censorship has become the golden rule for journalists who want to preserve their freedom and their livelihood.
Before I used to laugh when I heard people talk about self-censorship. Now I don’t do it willingly out of fear, but to be able to continue to do my job freely and in difficult circumstances.
Morocco is the only country in the region and in the Middle East where there is no private television, and it is perhaps the only country in the world, along with North Korea, where television is an instrument of official propaganda. The authorities in Morocco don’t want people to think freely in any area: In the media, universities, civil society, even in the business world, to be independent has become equivalent to being an enemy of the nation and the homeland.
As for the September 2013 battle, you were released on bail, to the surprise of many. Was this a surprise for you as well? Why do you think you were given “lenient treatment?” How did your treatment compare to the treatment of other journalists in Morocco?
When I chose to practice this nice job as a journalist, it was not in order to go to prison. I am not a militant and didn’t want to be a hero. My release is also due to the great movements here and abroad that protested for it. Several NGOs supported me with communiqués, sometimes joint statements, awareness campaigns from legal perspectives through the mobilizing of the leading international media that published reporting, and even articles and editorials that asked for my release. I will take the opportunity here, once more, to thank all those who supported me and still support me. A huge thanks to them.
On the contrary, I don’t think that I had special treatment. Three years after my release, I am still out on bail and my trial is still on-going.
For me the job of being an independent journalist is a choice that I accept. The job of being a journalist is as a counterbalance to criticize other authorities, but one has to be trustworthy to do so, and have more honesty and objectivity. I get no salary from my own website because of the lack of funds. I have to collaborate with other websites abroad to be able to finance my own website and to earn a living.
In 2014 you relaunched Lakome. How long did it take for you to decide to relaunch the magazine? What was the reaction of readers when you launched Lakome2?
Two years after my release and after several requests to lift the blocking, I decided to launch a new version under another domain name — lakome2.com. Lakome2 is the continuation of the same editorial policy as Lakome, which is still blocked in Morocco.
Last week Lakome2 was behind a big scandal that caused an uproar in Morocco. It was a scandal about land development by the State. We were cited as the source by the leading media in France, Spain and in the Arab world.
It’s not easy to always start again from zero. Our readership remained faithful to our editorial policy. But, with Lakome2, we practice more self-censorship. I rarely publish editorial articles like I used to in the first version of Lakome. We don’t have the means to finance investigative reporting.
How has access to smartphone technology shaped journalists’ abilities to report in Morocco?
Moroccans are talented at new communication technologies, but the Moroccan authorities create a lot of obstacles and restrictions to reduce Moroccans to simple consumers of new technologies. Today there are journalists and activists who are prosecuted for violating national security and using the “StoryMaker” app.
In spite of all the restrictions, obstacles, bans and trials, social networks are growing in Morocco. Today the “Facebook Party” (with nearly 11 million subscribers) is the largest apolitical party with the most influence and impact on Moroccan life.
All the restrictive measures against freedom are contrary to the tide of history. It is liberty guiding the people to create their historic destiny. Freedom is not earned by fear; rather, one has to earn it in order to deserve it, and one has to fully and freely practice it in order to defend it.
You can’t go back in time, which is the cause of conflict today. Tomorrow will have to be earned. All our universal values are the culmination of the battles fought and sacrifices made by others to achieve them. Morocco’s future lies in the freedom of the press and freedom for its citizens to freely decide their own destiny.