International organizations have remained silent on the case, but online commentators are debating whether it is an example of rape culture or lack of press freedom.
Rabat – It all started with a series of Facebook posts on May 17. A young man under the pseudonym “Adam Muhammed” revealed he experienced a sexual assault by Soulaiman Raissouni, the editor-in-chief of the daily Moroccan newspaper Akhbar Alyaoum, in Raissouni’s apartment in 2018.
“Today, I want to expose the issue of sexual and physical harassment and an attempted sexual assault that I was exposed to by the end of 2018,” Muhammed wrote.
“The assailant is a well-known figure, the founder of a well-known news site. I was invited by his wife to work on a project dealing with LGBT in Morocco. This lady was a friend of mine and I did not know her intentions before the start of the project,” the post continued.
Following Muhammed’s post, Moroccan prosecutors ordered an investigation of the allegation. Casablanca police summoned Muhammed on May 21 to give an account of what happened two years ago. The police arrested Soulaiman Raissouni a day later, on May 22.
Only the court will establish what happened between the two men. What deserves attention now is the public’s unusual reaction to the case.
The uproar in Morocco largely overlooks the issue of sexual assault in an outcry for a presumed attack on Moroccan press freedom. So many sensitive topics came together in one Facebook post: Rape that remains a cultural taboo, homosexuality which is a crime, and instances of Morocco cracking down on outspoken journalists.
Consequently, the main concern of those that read about it is, “What are the state’s motives behind the arrest?” rather than whether the allegation is true or false.
The silence of big human rights organizations such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch seems to mirror societal attitudes skeptical of the assault.
While LGBT and human rights organizations remain largely silent, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) defended Raissouni on the grounds of his occupation.
Why is the controversy so unusual and so great, or rather what is at stake in the attempted rape allegation case?
Attack on the press or…
Soulaiman Raissouni, as editor in chief of Akhbar Alyaoum, leads an independent newspaper that often voices criticism of the Moroccan government.
The journalist is also an uncle of Hajar Raissouni, a journalist of the same newspaper who went to jail in 2019 for getting an abortion, an allegation she and her fiance denied. At the time, some questioned if police had arrested her because of her uncle’s writings. King Mohammed VI pardoned Hajar the same year.
According to their view, the rape allegation against Raissouni is nothing but a state fabrication to silence his critical writing.
Christopher Deloire, the secretary-general of RSF, voiced solidarity with Raissouni on May 22. His tweet described the journalist as a “victim of a defamation campaign created by the digital media close to state services.” The secretary-general also reminded his followers that Raissouni is “an uncle of a journalist who had an abortion.”
Mohammed Masbah, director of the Moroccan Institute for Policy Analysis, pointed out the timing of the arrest—Friday afternoon just before Eid al-Fitr—as “crucial so the case does not attract attention.”
Hajar Raissouni posted a Messenger chat with her uncle from 2018 in which he claims “they are preparing” to arrest him.
The narrative of Soulaiman Raissouni being jailed for dissident activity completely ignores Adam Muhammed—in fact, it assumes the attempted rape never took place. Morocco is no easy country for rape victims who face severe social repercussions for speaking out.
Adam Muhammed’s situation as a gay man is not only one of social ostracisation but also puts him at risk for going to jail. His sexual orientation comes as another tragic difficulty in denouncing the sexual assault he alleges.
Muhammed claimed he did not want to expose the harassment earlier due to a fear of reprisal and shaming of his family. Homosexual activity remains a crime in Morocco under Article 489 of the Penal Code. Those engaging in same-sex relations may face up to three years in prison and a fine between MAD 120 ($12) and MAD 1,200 ($120).
A fresh wave of homophobia has rampaged through Morocco during the lockdown. Starting April 13, some heterosexuals forcibly “outed” many LGBT Moroccans by logging into LGBT dating apps.
Family rejections, including home expulsions, and physical harassment followed the exposures, reported Human Rights Watch.
Although Morocco passed “Combating Violence Against Women” Law 103-13 in September 2018, obstacles for speaking up persist. The law makes no provisions for male victims of sexual assault and only protects victims if they choose to file a criminal claim.
Yet Morocco remains a culture where sexual issues are taboo. In consequence, societal and familial pressures against filing such claims prevent victims from speaking out.
Courts can even treat pedophilia cases with leniency. A man who raped and murdered an 11-year-old girl in a Marrakech suburb only received a sentence of 1.5 years. A 50-year-old who raped 20 girls aged between 6 and 10 in the Casablanca region got a sentence of 20 years in prison. Sexual abuse has even occurred in a mosque.
Morocco’s Penal Code punishes sexual abuse on minors with two to 30 years in prison. Yet the law is not easy to enforce: Victims fear speaking out, and, worst of all, the judicial system does not always give them a hearing when they do, dismissing their allegations because of “lack of evidence.”
Outrage against political motives
Betty Lagchar, the co-founder of the Alternative Movement for Individual Liberties (MALI) condemned Soulaiman Raissouni for homophobia and Deloire for protecting the journalist. The hashtag she ended her tweet with, #rapeculture (#cultureduviol), is popular in responses to Deloire’s tweet.
The RSF secretary-general faces online accusations of “helping his friends,” and some accused RSF of “having a clear political agenda.”
Twitter users decried Deloire’s support for the journalist just because he is a journalist. “You do not have any shame,” wrote a furious internet user, “not even of being an accomplice to a homophobe.”
Facts and their interpretations
Some of the events that unfolded in the past week may have multiple interpretations. Masbah and other Raissouni supporters claim that the timing of the arrest was part of a plan to avoid public attention. The arrest, however, came one day after a Thursday interview with Muhammed.
The journalist’s supporters point to Muhammed’s disappearance from social media a few days after his publication as confirmation he was a state agent. Yet many in the LGBT community in Morocco try to keep a low profile, offering a different explanation.
The two-year delay of Muhammed’s allegations is a point Soulaiman Raissouni’s defenders mentioned. Yet many sexual assault victims only speak out after years, if ever. The immense psychological trauma and fear of reprisals silence victims worldwide. Article 489 together with the society’s conservative attitudes add to the difficulty of Moroccans.
A fair trial is crucial
Despite the Eid holiday, Moroccans are by no means unaware of the allegations and the arrest as Masbah implied. “Real rape allegations have been formulated and the law will continue its work,” reads an exemplary tweet. The fact somebody may have committed sexual assault remains a crucial issue for many Moroccans who comment on social media channels.
Regardless of whether straight or gay, a person’s physical integrity might have been compromised, which is what the state needs to investigate.
Is it too painful for human rights organizations to believe a “liberal” hero, an independent journalist, can also be a sexual predator? At the moment, internet users have severely politicized the assault allegations.
Being critical of the government does not mean being unaccountable to any charges other than those related to “press crackdown.” This politicization may cost the victim increased psychological trauma.
On the other hand, if the allegations are untrue, it would show a cold-blooded use of what may be the most sensitive crime to crack down on dissent.
Both the journalist and his accuser deserve fairness in what will, depending on the outcome, turn out to be a trial for the freedom of the press or the safety of Moroccans regardless of their sexual orientation.