The ongoing Omar Radi affair has made fashionable the now widely accepted but incomplete new narrative about Morocco as a fundamentally repressive state.
Rabat – As new twists and plots emerge in the Omar Radi affair, with the journalist now in detention pending his trial on charges of spying and sexual assault, his case has become the new cause celebre of self-proclaimed human rights advocates fixated on calling out Morocco.
From a narrative point of view, the journalist’s supporters are now expertly going about the usual trick of pointing to Morocco’s supposedly entrenched culture of “politicized” trials when dealing with “dissent” and critical voices. Their new Morocco narrative is one that paints the country as a systemic jailer of critical journalists and the antithesis of the regional exception it claims to be.
Such rhetorical and discursive methods are actually not new among self-proclaimed rights and democracy advocates who have long downplayed Morocco’s series of liberal reforms post-2011. But the Omar Radi affair seems to have given steam to their new Morocco narrative, with even the most “respectable” international news outlets taking the bait.
Earlier this week, Afaf Bernani, a former publicist at Morocco’s Ahkbar Al Yaoum paper now exiled in Tunisia, published in the Washington Post what remains to date the Radi saga’s most damning indictment of Morocco’s supposed weaponization of sexual assault cases.
Sprinkling her article with autobiographical bits that I am not in a position of confirming or denying, Bernani likens the Omar Radi affair and the case of Taoufik Bouachrine, her former boss at Moroccan newspaper Ahkbar Al Yaoum.
According to Bernani, her own “ordeal,” which she alleged included “psychological torture” she endured when Moroccan authorities tried to force her to “confess” that she was one of Bouachrine’s victims, is the reason why she doubts the sexual misconduct allegations facing Radi.
She writes, “Sexual violence, as elsewhere, remains an unfortunate reality in Morocco. Yet by selectively targeting independent journalists, the regime sends a worrying message to victims and survivors that the only allegations they are interested in taking seriously are… against the regime’s harshest critics.” This, she added, “trivializes sexual violence” and “spells a troubling future for press freedom in Morocco.”
Bernani’s account did not only accuse Morocco of fabricating rape and sexual violence stories to shame and silence independent-minded and critical voices in the country’s media landscape.
It also tellingly suggested that Hafsa Boutahar, Radi’s alleged victim, was probably paid and is being handled by the police or the prosecutor’s office to lie about a sexual assault incident that never took place.
Little surprise, then, that Boutahar reacted furiously to Bernani’s article. Boutahar had, until then, mostly stayed away from engaging in the media circus, only giving a few interviews to simply explain why she decided to speak up, after initially feeling ambivalent and even being supportive of Radi when his troubles with authorities started over spying suspicions.
She suggested, however, that Bernanai’s article left her furious. She said she “felt compelled to go out to answer,” adding: “Enough of bidding on my case and trying to internationalize it by lying to everyone.”
Boutahar also said she wrote to the Washington Post to exercise her right to respond, only to find out that the outlet was not remotely interested in what she had to offer on the Omar Radi affair. Her refutation of Bernani’s piece, however ingrained in her attempt to “preserve my dignity,” did simply not fit with the increasingly emerging consensus among the peddlers of the new Morocco narrative.
She insisted she is “a victim of rape and indecent assault by a colleague from the same institution,” not a “tool in the hands of the authorities.” Normally, the Post and other international outlets, who seem passionately invested in female emancipation and Muslim women’s liberation, would have happily platformed Boutahar’s message.
But when it comes to writing about Morocco, it is increasingly no longer normal or defendable to insist, as she did in her response, that her story is genuine and that only the competent Moroccan authorities should determine what happened and what punishment to apply. For the new Morocco narrativists, any account that does not support their consensus — that Morocco is a systemic jailer of journalists and a weaponizer of sexual misconduct — should be outside of the realm of acceptable discourse.
As feminist Moroccan journalist Zineb Ibnouzahir has put it, Radi supporters’ categorical dismissal of the sexual assault allegations he is facing speak of a “double standard feminism” that consists of “changing one’s position according to the hierarchy one establishes of the causes to defend.”
And with “rape … subordinated to freedom of expression,” she continued, Radi and other Moroccan journalists who have faced similar troubles with Moroccan authorities emerge as the “real journalists.” All the others, as long as they have no problems with the authorities, are apologists of the Makhzen, the Moroccan establishment.
The years of lead analogy
But not only that. Also transpiring in this new thesis about the end of Moroccan exceptionalism is the increasingly invoked idea that Morocco has not changed in any noticeable way when it comes to human rights and individual freedoms.
In fact, underlying a thesis like Bernani’s Washington Post article is the belief that Morocco is still living in the Years of Lead, the repressive decades under the late King Hassan II. The idea is that while King Hassan II used overt intimidation to clamp down on civil liberties and discourage dissent, King Mohammed VI has merely come up with new, creative tactics of silencing and smearing critics.
As far as the promoters of this new consensus are concerned, the bottom line, as we wrote at the start of the Omar Radi affair, is that Morocco is no regional exception and no champion of openness and tolerance.
“We are reliving the Years of Lead,” Radi himself recently told a French newspaper, claiming that today’s falsely liberal and deceptively tolerant Morocco is the new, updated version of the openly oppressive Morocco of the 70s and 80s.
But this comparison is misguiding, as evidenced by a series of reports and studies about how Morocco has notably changed and liberalized under King Mohammed VI, especially since the 2011 Constitution.
From interfaith overtures, women’s rights, and other political and social reforms to further its post-2011 democratization process, few or no MENA countries can claim to have traveled as far as Morocco. Indeed, there was a time, and not so long ago, when Rabat appeared to be on fist-bumping terms with the very international media now painting it in the most negative light.
There is virtually no international media that has not heaped praise on Morocco for its tolerant Islam and openness and commitment to liberal reforms. All of these gains are still a permanent and easily noticeable feature of the Moroccan reality.
However, emerging in the past few years has been a new Moroccan “reality,” created and promoted by Amnesty International, whose exaggerated and sometimes unfounded reports — which are being called out in an increasing number of countries — go out of their way to present Morocco as a chronic violator of human rights with no interest in democracy and socio-political advances.
This is not to say that Moroccan democracy has arrived. It has not, and Moroccans are the first to acknowledge the failures and the long road ahead, as they demand changes and further reforms. Despite its recent attempts at liberal reforms and democratic advances, Morocco still has a litany of problems.
As King Mohammed VI himself conceded in a recent speech, the country’s lingering issues include, among others, extreme, widespread poverty, youth unemployment, systemic corruption, a crumbling public school sector, exponentially growing social disparities, as well as insufficient overtures in terms of individual freedoms. So, this is not about blindly hailing Morocco or taking sides in the ongoing Radi case.
Instead, it is about getting the story right — or simply less wrong — when writing or reporting about Morocco. A sacred principle of reporting is the imperative to be a faithful chronicler of the events unfolding before one’s eyes, especially when such events include crude passions from conflicting narratives.
Rather than waging an ideological war against Moroccan authorities and institutions, reporting on Morocco should entail what one commentator has ably described as “balancing fair criticism and just admonishment.”
Or, as Aime Adi, the head of Amnesty Togo, once said when he called out Amnesty’s unfounded claims about torture in Togo, “When there are advances and improvements, we should acknowledge as much.”