In the following interview, historian and regime critic Maati Monjib (المعطي منجب) explains the political circumstances of his recent arrest, and in particular the new importance of the ‘presse de diffamation’.
He was interviewed by Rosa Moussaoui and Rachida El Azzouzi for L’Humanité. Al-M thank them, and express our support for Monjib.
What’s happening with the case against you for ‘endangering state security’, as part of the wider Moroccan Association of Investigative Journalism affair?
I had to appear in court on 1 October. It was the twentieth time I was summoned since 2015: that’s four appearances a year!
How do you explain this prolonging of the trial, which hasn’t even fully begun?
They hold the Sword of Damocles over the head of anyone they’re after, and anyone like them, in order to scare everyone.
The affair is politically sensitive, and scrutinised at the international level. The interventions of some big NGOs and the international press saved the situation, until now. External support, and the backing of prominent Moroccan figures, had protected me from a sentence. Great dissidents [résistants] like Abderrahmane Youssoufi have written a letter to the king, demanding an end to the hounding of a historian specialising in the nationalist movement. That generation knows me: I devoted my thesis to the power struggle between the national movement – the liberators of Morocco – and the monarchy. Noam Chomsky and Richard Folk have protested; the Washington Post and the New York Times have written about the affair in their editorials, which harms Morocco’s image, of course. And, the hunger strike which I observed in 2015 had its effect.
So, the regime decided to hand this hot potato to the judges, who were beseeched to ‘manage’ the affair. This meant little in practice [Ce qui ne veut rien dire], hence the incessant postponement of the trial pending further instructions, whilst at the judicial level, the casefile is empty . They hope to see me leave Morocco, since by staying, by saying it as I see it, I encourage others to speak openly.
Why has this group, training Moroccan journalists to do investigations, become such a pointed obsession [for the regime]?
The association is a project that goes back a long way; we tried to register it in 2008, but the regime refused to recognise its existence. Our interlocutors in the administration responded that ‘investigations, that’s an area for the police.’ Until, that is, 22 February 2011, two days after the Moroccan Spring protests; at that moment, they got scared and they made concessions, recognising a large number of associations.
In fact, investigations per se are considered a ‘red line’ by the Moroccan regime, as they are by all authoritarian regimes. The very idea that journalists might be familiar with these techniques is seen as a threat by the regime. One of the journalists that we trained conducted an inquiry into the royal firm’s involvement in precious metals, like gold, which showed the terrible ecological impact on the south-east of Morocco. Straightaway the police called him, demanding whether it was me who’d raised the subject of the inquiry – but it’s an independent commission that includes various people with a diversity of political opinion which chooses the inquiries that we sponsor.
And another reason the regime’s worried; we’ve trained hundreds of journalists to use the app Story Maker, which makes it possible to transform a smartphone into a real camera, both shooting and transmitting images, which protects them against any eventual police seizures. It’s an open source tool, developed by the British newspaper The Guardian; using it meant our being accused of espionage on behalf of foreign powers.
Do you know that you’re under surveillance?
I’m followed even during trips abroad. When I was in Montpellier for a few days, the website Chouf TV, the Moroccan intelligence services’ biggest office [plus grande officine des services marocains], dedicated an entire article to the outfit I was wearing, with stuff about a yellow silk shirt – they lied about the material, though not the colour. This extremely powerful, defamatory media group – the most-followed, with millions of daily hits – announced the arrests of the journalists Souleiman Raissouni and Omar Radi before they’d actually happened. With me too; they announced my arrest even before it happened.
I’ve lost 16 kilos due to police harassment. When I went to the countryside, to my village to the south of Benslimane, to visit my 88 year-old mother, the police followed me, posting up a few hundreds metres from her house. On one occasion, they flashed their sirens, thinking they’d scare me. They followed me the whole trip, with their police car and sirens, just as if I was the king!
It became unbearable, being tailed, being photographed without knowing it; seeing all these clichés in the defamatory press, inventing mistresses, accusing me of corruption and who knows what else. My mental health has changed. I’ve become far more sensitive. These pressures have isolated me from my colleagues, who are frightened. They’ve made life hell. It’s tough.
The Rabat bureau of Al Jazeera has been asked to stop inviting me, under pain of closure. I’ve been threatened many times in the street, physically so; it’s been made clear that I’d better keep my mouth shut.
I know that my house has been bugged. I’d recently received a student at mine; our phones were off; he asked for my advice on his plan to pursue his studies in the United States. I encouraged him, and advised him to perfect his English. Two days later, Chouf TV presented me as a people-trafficker, pushing young people to flee the country under the cover of studying in the US. I think incessantly about what they’re going to bring out, about what they’ll publish. I don’t drink alcohol, since I’m a diabetic; when some friends came by and asked if they could bring some beers for themselves, I refused. That’s the result of these pressures.
From now on, it’s the political police which governs Morocco. The atmosphere is suffocating.
The regime once made political and security charges against opponents; “undermining state security”, et cetera. Today it makes malicious accusations, smears, using common law: moral issues, corruption, rape, and so on. How did this shift take place?
This strategy has always been used, even at the time of Hassan II [r. 1961-1999], but in homeopathic doses. It became dominant from 2011, and it’s worsened again over the last three years. With social media, the regime can no longer exercise the same media control, and political accusations no longer have the same effect; instead they can give a certain notoriety and prestige to its opponents, which can turn them into heroes. The Arab Spring put a lot of light on its opponents, it gave them a good image; the regime, in Morocco, found itself constrained to recognise the legitimacy of their demands. That’s where this strategy of designating them not as oppositionists [opposants], but as rapists, traitors, thieves, spies, and separatists comes from. In the case of Taoufik Bouachrine [director of Akhbar al youm, sentenced in 2019 to 15 years in prison for sexual violence], police put pressure on women to make false accusations of rape against him. They were threatened, if they didn’t comply, with being charged with adultery. Some accusers ended up retracting [their statements] and certain women who were approached, who didn’t yield to blackmail, testified to human-rights activists.
This defamatory press, which is dragging opposition figures through the mud, has acquired a vast amount of power. How was this made possible? Was it a deliberate political choice?
Indeed. In Morocco, the political police have several branches. One of them works amongst the political parties, even the pro-regime parties; others work in civil society, in parliament, in business circles. All the social spheres are covered. One that we might christen as the ‘disinformation-intoxication’ branch is dedicated specifically to the media. One has the impression of it being privileged, at least in terms of both human and financial resources; they’ve got a lot of resources, a lot of power. It is, moreover, those media-police who brought my case into the university, who put pressure on my [departmental] director, who denigrate me to my colleagues, et cetera. They’ve had these colossal means at their disposal from 2011: at that moment the regime became afraid, it wanted to regain control of the media and the social networks.
A good journalist in Morocco earns the equivalent of €600, whilst young journalists without any experience or ability – but docile – have been recruited by these médias de diffamation for the equivalent of €2500, the same as the allowance of an under-secretary of state. I met one, a no-mame mediocrity, struggling to even write Arabic properly; the army stuck him in a helicopter and flew him over areas with clashes with the Polisario. He spoke about it like some war feat; he was proud!
Take Le 360, which says all these terrible things about oppositionists, about human-rights defenders. They’ve made a name for themselves as far away as Europe, by having defamatory articles side-by-side with opinion pieces with illustrious names, by well-known authors. It’s a calibrated strategy, one that’s very intelligent. All the prix Goncourt [a French literary prize] Moroccans have been approached to write a column, with the guarantee of total liberty to write [being in France] – even a little room for criticism of the regime’s position – at €1000 for a 600-word article, giving the site a veneer of respectability.
The regime is confronted by a strong, popular, credible opposition. Intellectuals, human-rights militants and journalists are the forward guard of this opposition, gathered at the margins of the official parties and around independent figures, some young and some not so young, who are able to embody an alternative. Putting it simply, this defamation strategy aims at the eradication of any alternative. Giving a bad name to an opponent is a way of isolating them, to scare everyone else, to reduce everyone to silence. Defamation is a poison; it’s very cynical. It’s much more effective than prison or physical repression. People are afraid of being smeared. In Morocco, we often say that ‘reputation is like glass; once broken, you can’t glue it back together’. Under these circumstances, only the boldest voices feel free enough to speak [Seuls les casse-gueule, dans ces circonstances, se permettent de parler encore librement]. It’s a deplorable strategy, one to weaken and totally demoralise the opposition.
Under the regime of Hassan II, intellectuals stood up, kept firm. Mohammed VI has succeeded in fracturing that front; some former writers of the rebellious magazine Souffles now say that freedoms are respected in Morocco. How do you explain this?
The regime has managed to get the majority of intellectuals on its side. First, by buying consciences: newspapers, websites, and institutes guarantee a comfortable remuneration to researchers. Then, for those who do not get involved in politics, the state can perfectly guarantee individual freedoms, equality between men and women and cultural rights like those of the Amazighs. Anything that does not affect the distribution of power within the state is negotiable, except for opponents. Then there’s the defamation strategy – an intellectual whose reputation is sullied sees their life, their career collapse. When Noam Chomsky supported me, I was referred to as ‘a friend of a Jew’, as a pro-Israeli ‘Zionist’. Since 2013, thousands of defamatory articles have mentioned me. Posting my photo and my home address, they claimed that I was a paedophile. It’s unimaginable. People no longer flinch out of fear of physical repression, but out of fear of defamation. This is the method of Mohammed VI.
The lives of those who refuse to bow are made impossible. In April 2019, they tried to get me fired from the university. I received a letter, a ‘final warning’ asking me to ‘return to work’ within seven days. However, I was never absent; I had been forbidden to teach. They wanted me to sign a document attesting to my ‘return’ to work, which I have always refused to do, as signing it was an admission of absence. I didn’t sign. I went to see the university administration at the highest level. Fortunately, thanks to the help of a colleague, I was secretly teaching a course to doctoral students that the political police were never aware of. I had the students sign an attendance sheet. I attended all the research committee meetings, even those I was not invited to. I signed in on purpose and took pictures of my signature, but nobody wanted to take these documents into account. They wanted to fire me without procedure, without a disciplinary board. I was to be fired on 25 April 2019. On the 22nd, 23rd, and 24th of the same month, I was on hunger strike. The Minister in charge of Human Rights ended up informing the Minister of Education about my situation.
How would you define the nature of the Moroccan regime today?
The people who make up this regime are using their political power to mindlessly enrich themselves. In Morocco, large fortunes are increasing, visibly. There is also this highly sophisticated way of absorbing the elite, the political parties, their apparatuses, and their personnel. The intelligence services have files on all public figures. The slightest dissent exposes you, on the spot, to defamation. Even pro-regime ministers at the highest level are sometimes vilified. Anyone who steps out out line exposes themselves to the wrath of the Palace and denigration by médias de diffamation. It’s a regime based on political cynicism and slander.
 I.e., the trial is not controlled at the judicial level.