'A turning point for Internet freedom in Morocco'

Rachid Jankari, himself a Moroccan blogger, examines the fallout from Mohamed Erraji's arrest and sentencing to two years in prison for posting an article critical of King Mohamed VI's social policies.
Mohamed Erraji at the time of his release from prison on Thursday. © 2M

CASABLANCA, September 12 (MENASSAT) – The Moroccan blogosphere is still reeling from the shock of Mohamed Erraji's arrest and sentencing.

Erraji, a blogger and collabarotor of the site hespress.com, was arrested on September 8 after he posted an article criticizing the Moroccan King's social policies. He was sentenced to two years in prison and a $640 dollar fine.

On Thursday, the court of appeals in Agadir ordered Erraji's conditional release because of procedural mistakes but the blogger is still facing a new trial on the same charges.

Footage from Morocco's 2M TV channel of Mohamed Erraji's release from prison on Thursday.

The reaction of the Moroccan and international blogosphere to Erraji's arrest was swift. A campaign website was launched at http://helperraji.com/, and fellow bloggers established a virtual support network through a Facebook group and their own personal blogs.

Larbi, a well-known Moroccan blogger who blogs at larbi.org, told MENASSAT, "If further proof was needed, [the Erraji affair] has shown once and for all that the image of Morocco's "new regime" as modern and open is nothing but a house of cards. Let's face it: Mohamed VI's Morocco is no better than Mubarak's Egypt or Benali's Tunisia. It is time to say it out loud."

The Erraji affair has made headlines around the world, and many international rights organizations were quick to denounce the sentencing of Mohamed Erraji.

As a result, the court of appeals in Agadir ordered Erraji's conditional release on September 11, just three days after his sentencing by the lower court.

The court of appeals justified its decision by saying that the lower court had failed to respect "certain procedural requirements" under the press and publication law.

Erraji was prosecuted under Article 14 of Morocco's "Code de la Presse," which makes punishable with a prison sentence of three to five years and a fine of 10.000 to 100.000 dirhams "any offense to His Majesty the King, the Royal princes and princesses... committed through one of the means stipulated under Article 38." (Article 38 listing all electronic means of distribution including the Internet.)

"These factual elements aside, the Erraji affair is a turning in terms of freedom of expression on the Internet [in Morocco,]" said blogger Omar El Hyani. "It is in fact the first time that a [Moroccan] blogger has been imprisoned because of something he pulished on the Internet."

In fact, the Erraji sentencing is just the latest in a series of attacks on online freedom of expression in Morocco and the usage of the Internet.

Earlier this year, Morocco imprisoned Fouad Mortada after he created a spoof profile for the King's brother on Facebook. Mortada was later released after receiving a Royal pardon.

Internet provider Maroc Telecom has blocked access to elements of the search engine Google, notably the Google Earth application.

The Kingdom has also blocked access to the video sharing website YouTube for four days, and has blocked access to the websites of the non-authorized Islamist movement, "Justice et Bienfaisance."

"The multiplication of these incidents proves that Morocco has now become an honored member  of the club of Internet enemies," the blogger Othmane Boumaalif observed.

"But the real question is whether we really have to reasses the situation every time some small-time judge decides he wants to please his 'masters.' The issue of the Internet should be addressed by a competent judicial authority... Otherwise, the vicious circle will never end."

What is clear to the Moroccan blogosphere is that what happened to Mohamed Erraji was a travesty of justice. He was the victim of an expedited trial during which he did not have proper legal representation.

With Erraji now on provisonal release, his case takes a new turn. His supporters are celebrating the court of appeal's decision as a victory.

The next step is Erraji's new trial before the court of appeals.

"Our vigilance and our support will not falter, quite to the contrary," the members of Erraji's support committee have pledged.

(This article was translated from the original French.)

(Rachid Jankari blogs at www.jankari.org.)

More information:

► Mohamed Erraji's article on Hespress, http://hespress.com/article-erraji.html
► A French translation of the article, http://www.larbi.org/post/2008/09/Bloggeur-marocain-interpelle

► An English translation of the article, http://globalvoicesonline.org/2008/09/08/morocco-the-post-that-led-mohammah-erraji-to-jail/

► The Help Erraji campaign website, http://helperraji.com/

► Mohamed Erraji's personal blog, http://almassae.maktoobblog.com/