Omar Radi’s case comes in a charged political context in Morocco, amid a lingering feeling of a social crisis as the country struggles to effectively implement recent reforms.
Rabat – The Casablanca court of first instance may not have thought that the arrest and detention of journalist and human rights advocate Omar Radi would be the galvanizing political event it is turning into following news of the 33-year-old’s arrest.
Radi, who was first summoned by police on Thursday, December 26, was subsequently remanded in custody, pending his trial next week on January 2.
The journalist is believed to be paying the price of a particularly muscular tweet he wrote in April of last year, when he lashed out at the heavy sentences the Casablanca court had handed to Hirak Rif activists.
“Lahcen Talfi, judge of the court of appeal, executioner of our brothers, let us remember him well. In many regimes, little arms like him came back to beg later, claiming ‘to have carried out orders.’ Neither forgetting nor forgiveness for these officials without dignity,” says the tweet,” said Raidi’s April tweet.
Attack on freedom of expression
While authorities say that Radi is being legitimately sued for insubordination and “contempt of law,” something that has been largely interpreted as a vague reference to the journalist’ critical tweet about the trial of Hirak activists, news of his detention has been followed by an expression of public outrage and widespread furore.
Supporters say Radi’s arrest and detention over a nine month-old tweet is “political repression and sets a dangerous precedent for freedom of expression in Morocco, especially for journalists and rights activists whose job they say require sometimes saying things that authorities will find offensive or contemptuous.”
On social media, especially on Twitter and Facebook, the hashtag #Free Omar Radi has rapidly become a trendy, galvanizing rallying point for those arguing that standing in solidarity with Radi amounts to fighting for freedom of speech and related democratic overtures as Morocco looks to consolidate its rickety democratic gains made in recent years.
While support for Radi has come from several sectors of Morocco’s socio-political life, the “#Free Omar Radi” sentiment has particularly registered supportive voices among members of the newly appointed New Development Model Special Committee to journalists, rights activists, and even a few political leaders.
Rachid Benzine, a French-Moroccan political scientist and a member of the New Development Model Special Committee, tweeted that Radi’s detention is a “fatal blow” to Morocco’s professed aim to further its democracy.
Referencing Morocco’s perceived determination to make more democratic reforms, Benzine argued that development requires democratic consolidation, which, in turn, requires freedom of expression and openness to criticism, public disagreements, and debate.
“Radi’s detention concerns us all and it reminds us that no development model is defensible or viable without freedom of expression and information. Development implies criticism and debates about ideas,” he said.
Driss Ksikes, a veteran journalist and researcher and also a member of the New Development Model Special Committee, echoed Benzine’s argument about criticism and disagreements being important ingredients of freedom of speech, a free public space, and socio-economic development.
He elaborated a bit further, however, presenting Radi as not merely a critical journalist and committed activist, but also an embodiment of the kind of show of public audacity that Morocco badly needs in its march forward.
“Omar Radi, a talented and critical journalist, wanted to prevent the return of a system of arbitrary repression of activists by judicial means,” Ksikes said in his tweet.
He added that Raidi is being arbitrarily sued and “improperly” detained for daring to express his righteous indignation over some of the stains on the Moroccan judiciary, especially the perception that the Hirak trial was politicized. “We need, now more than ever, an open public space, as well as a mature, serene, and fair rule of law so that we can hope to go forward,” said Ksikes.
Meanwhile, some noticeable voices of the Moroccan media scene have also expressed solidarity with their colleague, saying that Radi’s arrest and detention is an indication of the duress under which Moroccan journalists operate.
The National Syndicate of the Moroccan Press (SNPM) said in a statement that Radi’s detention was a source of “great concern” for Moroccan journalists. “Whatever the content of his tweet, SNPS considers that it is unacceptable that our colleague Radi was arrested on the basis of the penal code rather than on that of the Press Code,” said SNPM’s statement.
Beyond Morocco, Human Rights Watch has urged Moroccan authorities to “unconditionally release and drop charges against a journalist jailed for a 9 months-old tweet criticizing a judge.”
Like Radi’s Moroccan supporters, HRW’s report lauded the 33-year old’s investigative work as a journalist as well his documented commitment to human rights and social inclusiveness advocacy.
“Criticizing officials is protected speech and no one should face prison time for peacefully doing so,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Moroccan authorities should immediately free Omar Radi and drop their case against him, which reeks of political vengeance against his critical journalism and activism.”
Hundreds take to streets
The expression of solidarity with Radi has gone beyond “#free Omar Radi” hashtags and behind-computer activism, however.
In recent months, one recurrent criticism about “we stand in solidarity” campaigns in Morocco has been the profound disparity between the overwhelming sense of urgency and determination shown online and the lackluster, almost insignificant mobilization when it comes to actually going out to protest.
As if to trump that perception of inadequacy between online and on-the-ground protests, hundreds of journalists, rights, activists, and political leaders took to the streets in Rabat on Saturday, December 28, showing their dissatisfaction with the Radi case in fashion.
Gathered in front of the parliament in Rabat, they sang “free Omar Radi” slogans and held up banners and waved placards with similar scripts in Arabic. There have been reports of similar show of public support in Casablanca and Paris.
Radi’s case comes in a charged political context in Morocco. As Morocco implements socio-political reforms and vows to further its democratic experience, there is a lingering feeling of a social crisis.
That sentiment is compounded by a perception of sustained clashes between two Moroccos, ostensibly divided on whether to discard longstanding, illiberal provisions in the penal code and other legislative documents as the country struggles to live up to the challenge of democratic consolidation and its accompanying socio-political overtures.
Earlier this year, Morocco’s National Council for the Defense of Human Rights (CNDH), the country’s leading authority on rights-related issues, published a memorandum that called for a complete overhaul or “reactualization” of the country’s penal code.
Siding with those calling for a “liberalization” of the Moroccan public space, CNDH’s memorandum made the case that a number of legal provisions still applied in Morocco today are no longer reflective of the profound societal changes the kingdom has witnessed in recent years.