Radi’s case benefits those fixated on demonizing Morocco and haughtily dismissing all the progress the country has made in recent years.
Rabat – On December 28, hundreds of activists, journalists, politicians, and intellectuals, flocked to the Moroccan parliament building in Rabat to protest against a move that they perceived as a frontal attack on freedom of speech and unencumbered self-expression in Morocco.
“Free Omar Radi,” they sang, with some adding in a note of undimmed determination, fury even: “For Omar, we will not give up. This state is corrupt.” They were angry and outraged, as they called out the “illegitimacy” and “political nature” of the arrest and subsequent detention of journalist Omar Radi over a statement he tweeted nine months ago to strongly criticize a judge for handing harsh sentences to Hirak activists.
The following hours saw the case capture even more hearts, culminating in a stronger mobilization in defense of Radi’s inalienable right, especially as a journalist, to freely express himself. There were calls to Moroccan authorities from inside the country and abroad to “immediately release” Radi.
The smoldering, pro-Radi rage was to a considerable extent a righteous indignation at the perceived desire from some custodian of public decency to stifle critical voices and prevent Morocco from progressing towards a fully fledged democratic experience.
The Casablanca Court of First Instance, having categorically opposed releasing Radi on bail after his lawyers so requested when he was first summoned, has since given in to public pressure. Radi has been released on bail, pending his trial tomorrow, January 2. But still, one question remains: Why arrest him in the first place? Isn’t freedom of expression guaranteed by Morocco’s 2011 Constitution, even more specifically the Press Code adopted in 2016?
Amid the massive backlash that greeted Radi’s detention, one occurrence caught our attention at Morocco World News. Almost at the same time as Radi was left to rot in a Casablanca cell, singer Dounia Batma and her sister Ibtissam, suspected of links to a huge blackmailing network on social media, were released on bail, pending further investigations into the case.
This begged the question: Why approve the Batma sisters’ plea for provisional release, while Radi, whose only crime was to vent his frustration and anger as a concerned citizen and a journalist, had his categorically rejected? Selective enforcement always smells of impropriety. It inescapably invites the suggestion that something is amiss, especially when someone allegedly linked to more serious, heinous crimes is treated with more decency than a journalist and citizen who spoke out about an issue of public interest.
In a charged political climate, where a number of self-proclaimed freedom fighters or self-tailored paragons of political audacity within and without Morocco are notoriously quick to jump on any opportune moment to question Morocco’s notable advances in the past two decades, it is baffling that the Moroccan authorities continue to take the same reckless and uncalculated decisoins, continuously falling in the trap of visceral critics always ready to demonize and vilify the country.
Democracy requires dissent
One instructive example is the case of journalist Mohammed Radi Ellili, who after years of supporting the Moroccanness of Western Sahara while working as a senior presenter at Al Aoula TV, one of Morocco’s official television channels in the southern provinces, has now turned into a detractor of Morocco. His fallout with the management at Al Aoula, which was visibly not professionally dealt with and left Ellili disappointed and jobless, has made him a fervent defender of the “Sahrawi self-determination” thesis he once sharply and cogently criticized.
Aminatou Haidar, unknown until 2009, instantly became an embodiment of public conscience and freedom after an employee at the Laayoune Airport denied her entrance because her passport said she was from “Western Sahara.” She now routinely travels the world to promote Polisario’s self-determination thesis, and has been decorated as a result for her “inspiring” work as the “Gandhi of Western Sahara”—all because one Moroccan official failed to realize that events like denying entrance to a pro-Polisario activist are the sort that capture hostile media coverage worldwide, even grabbing the attention of people not even remotely interested in Morocco.
Democracy requires dissension and a free public sphere to express one’s convictions. And as long as Morocco gives the impression of being “disturbed” by this, the country’s detractors will always find fertile ground to lambast and tarnish it, even if that means doing so through a sniffy dismissal of all the advances and reforms Morocco has made recently.
Radi, a fine journalist whose work on economic marginalization and social inclusion had already earned him acclaim in some circles in Morocco and abroad, was just an ambitious journalist navigating his way around the freedom that is still allowed in Morocco.
From his numerous articles on Morocco’s social, political, and economic issues, written essentially for francophone Moroccan publications and intermittently for some international outlets, one got a sense of a journalist who was merely doing his job as best as he could.
Radi is not the typical Morocco-bashing, self-proclaimed “dissident” who rejoices in demonizing the country and rejecting its monarchy and national institutions. His writings and advocacy appear to be those of a citizen who loves Morocco and wants it to change, to fully embrace democracy, to live up to the post-2011 spirit with a new, more liberal Constitution and all the legislative reforms that have followed that spirit.
Radi’s accidental martyrdom
Arresting and detaining him has catapulted Radi into a stardom status he may have never dreamt of. For better or worse, some will from now on see him as a “martyr” of Morocco’s supposedly, inherently repressive state; or the ultimate embodiment of a freedom fighter and an audacious “public intellectual” who stood against Morocco’s “illiberal” state machinery.
With such endearing accolades, Radi is set to become a much-welcome guest for conferences and TV shows about Morocco, the country’s record on human rights, and freedom. The best one could hope for is that Radi does not, with the public attention his case has attracted, embrace the new role that the kingdom’s detractors and visceral critics will want him to espouse.
Cases like Radi’s only add to the chaos, lending further relevance and validity to the longstanding suspicion of the dependence or politicization of the Moroccan judiciary.
They bring to mind other similar instances—the Hamid El Mahdaoui case, for instance—when the recklessness and self-aggrandizing miscalculations of some Moroccan officials inadvertently culminated in validating the main, guiding thesis of the Morocco-fixated “critics”: That Morocco’s established status as a regional exception is in fact a myth, a lie, a feel-good gospel to buy the passive adherence of Moroccans.
And so, for those who are fixated on Morocco’s supposedly inherent “backwardness,” who are obsessed with proving to the world that Morocco is no exception in the Arab world (or in Africa), events such as this provide a golden opportunity to further question the country’s image and documented reputation for notable democratic successes in the MENA region.
Morocco has changed immeasurably in recent years. There have been advances on women’s rights, religious tolerance, and many more, in addition to the massive development projects that have been lauded by many observers. But needlessly putting a journalist in jeopardy does not help Morocco’s cause.
And so, as the country stands at a crossroads between fully committing to its post-2011 spirit and recklessly proving right those who are happy to ignore and erase all of the kingdom’s progress, it is important to remember that democratic consolidation requires the protection of journalists’ rights to critically assess public officials’ decisions and behavior. Radi’s arrest and detention was as concerning as it was uncalled for.