Police try to humiliate arrested female activists by posting personal photos taken from their cell phones
Saharawi refugees waiting for the UN special envoy in 2017 in Tindouf (Algeria). Photo RYAD KRAMDI / AFP
They use old video cameras and mobile phones to raise their voices from the desert and shout Enough is enough! Beating the odds, they record on the sly the demonstrations and denounce on social networks the acts of repression by Moroccan police. When discovered, they pay a high price: torture, arrests, harassment, slander, technological sabotage and heavy prison sentences. The activists of the Équipe Média, an underground press agency founded in 2009 by some twenty young Saharawis, have become the spearhead of those who seek to break the information blockade that Morocco exercises in Western Sahara and which punishes anyone who disputes its sovereignty over the territory.
In a telephone conversation with the paper, Ahmed Ettanji, President of the Equipo Média, denounces from El Ayoun an unbreathable atmosphere. "We want to explain what they are doing to us. Any voice demanding the rights of the Sahara is punished and severely repressed. There is an absolute lack of freedom”.
The US NGO Freedom House calls the situation in Western Sahara “not free”.
Abandoned by Spain in 1975 after more than a century of colonization and occupied since then by Morocco, Western Sahara has become a territory without free media, as denounced by organizations such as Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which last year published the first study on the subject, entitled Western Sahara: a desert for journalism. But the remarkable impact of RSF's work has not changed things; on the contrary, Saharawi journalists and activists in the occupied zone are denouncing an increase in punishment by Rabat. “Morocco, explains Ettani, officially ignored the RSF report, but on the ground repression has increased. They have never stopped, but now there are even more pressure, aggressions and arrests”.
Soldiers of the Polisario Front. Photo Gemma Saura
Edith R. Cachera, author of the report, who is also a correspondent and rapporteur for RSF in Spain, points out a change in tactics by Morocco to silence those who are calling for self-determination for Western Sahara, a territory divided between the zones occupied by Morocco, those controlled by the Polisario Front and the refugee camps of Tindouf (Algeria). In addition to prison sentences, of several years or short but constant, Cachera notes that the Moroccan authorities have changed the methods of repression towards more attacks on a personal level. "Morocco has gone from punishing with prison, which is still happening, to defiling privacy, slander, putting out false information on social networks and other types of harassment such as making Saharawi journalists lose their jobs, especially if they are civil servants, forcing them to be fired or boycotting their businesses". In the case of women activists, he reports that there have been cases, also in non-Saharawi areas, where police have published personal photos taken from the mobile phones of those women they arrested to slander them on social networks and before their own community.
It is not only RSF that has raised its voice. The US NGO Freedom House describes the situation in Western Sahara as "not free", with a score of only 4 points out of 100, and denounces that the pro-Saharawi media and journalists face "constant harassment", "suspension of their activity" or "possible blockades".
The United Nations has also shown its concern at the Moroccan drift. On 7 January, the UN working group on arbitrary detention officially admonished Morocco over the imprisonment of the Saharawi journalist, Walid Batal. The UN document called for an investigation by Morocco into the brutal arrest less than a year ago of the activist, who suffered, according to the text, "aggressive police violence and torture" and was "forced to sign confessions subsequently used against him in the trial". A video recorded by another activist at the time of his arrest shows several men in civilian clothes drawing the activist out of a car window, knocking him to the ground and beating him with sticks, kicks and punches. Last November, Batal was sentenced to two years in prison on charges of "assaulting public officials and possession of weapons".