Media and Development Conference III:The aborted dream of Hassan Rachidi



Hassan Rachidi

Founding the Moroccan al-Jazeera office in Rabat made his dream come true, but it became a nightmare. The authorities withdrew his press accreditation in June and he is currently facing trial on the accusation of deliberately spreading false news on riots in Sidi Ifni. Hassan Rachidi talks about the charges, his professional ethics and the media situation in Morocco in general.

 

Positive moves made by King Mohammed VI since 1999 seemed to usher in a new era in Morocco. The King encouraged young journalists, allowing them to start their own newspapers. The margin of freedom of expression became the widest in the region. Like many others, al-Jazeera made use of this new atmosphere. In 1999, 2001 and 2002 I approached the new rulers on behalf of al-Jazeera and in 2004 the Moroccan government allowed us to set up an office in Rabat.

 

This was of huge significance to the Maghreb region, which was underreported up till that moment. People were accustomed to tune into foreign news outlets for news from their own country. In November 2006 we started worldwide broadcast on al-Jazeera of a one-hour-long Maghreb bulletin. In a very short time it became very popular among viewers in the Maghreb and the Arab community in Europe. It lifted a media ban for many. We were able to give a voice to people from the radical left, liberals and islamists, who were prohibited to have their say on official TV where only progovernment opinions could be heard. At the same time we gave the governments a chance to react.

 

However, this dream did not last long. The first punch came during the September 2007 elections when the government accused us of supporting islamists and giving them more air time. This was a silly accusation, islamists ended up in third place in our top air time list. Besides it is my duty to cover them like any other newsmaker. How can I play along with the game of government dominated information and ban people? How can I take myself serious as a professional reporter? We work according to the principle of opinion and counter opinion, showing different sides of a story.

 

 We applied those same journalistic principles to the riots in Sidi Ifni, a port town in the South of Morocco facing socio-economic hardship. Youngsters blocked the port, protesting marginalisation by a government which broke earlier promises of starting up development programs. The blockade lasted ten days and was ended brutally on the 7th of June 2008 by thousands of security troops.

 

Al-Jazeera live coverage and broadcasts were already banned a month before. All I could do was receive information, verify my sources and pass the information in its raw state to my viewers. It’s up to them to judge. The 7th of June my telephone awoke me, it was human rights activist Ibrahim al-Layl alerting me about the riots. Three press releasesat the office from different sources all mentioned violent clashes and a death toll between 4 to 10. My contacts in Sidi Ifni confirmed this information. I finally succeeded mobilising a government source, who was “informed but not authorized” - two very different things in Morocco. He confirmed the confrontations, but stated there were no deaths. In our first news broadcast we quoted human rights and government sources, reporting both sides of the story. I was arrested and stripped of my press accreditation. I was interrogated for more than 13 hours. Somebody who has carried out a coup d’état should be undergoing such a trial, not a reporter. Of course, I was found guilty, a small guy like me cannot confront the government. There was an appeal and the trial might carry on indefinitely. Ibrahim al-Layl is awaiting his trial in prison. I may face up to a year in prison and a fine of 5.000 euros. In the meantime, I cannot practice my profession.

 

 I cannot accept this trial, I refuse to admit I made a professional error because that is absolutely not true. I reported objectively and professionally, quoting several sources among whomn the authorities. The information was balanced. The authorities think our Sidi Ifni coverage was revenge by al- Jazeera for the ban on live coverage. Al-Jazeera, on the other hand, believes the government repression means that its method of showing all sides of a story is no longer tolerated.

 

The al-Jazeera experience in Morocco was really a dream come true for me, now it has been aborted. The media situation in Morocco is going backwards. I know young talented journalists who sold there houses to start up independent newspapers. Now they are forced to pay huge fines causing them to go bankrupt. One fine was 600.000 dollars. It’s economic power play, a mercy bullet to shut them down.

 

In such an undemocratic atmosphere it’s hard to talk about independent press, but we should not be too pessimistic. We can try to stretch the limits of freedom, using media as a weapon to speed up the so-called transition. However, journalists should not become just militants fighting the system. We must never go against our own principles, but always act according to our professional standards. It’s crucial to train the many talented young journalists to facilitate change. They need training and internships, especially in the field of audiovisual media. They need you, European colleagues, to share your knowledge and skills and bridge the gap between Arab and Western media. [JB]

 

Based on the speech Hassan Rachidi delivered at the Free Voice Conference (09-09-2008) and a public interview conducted by Bertus Hendriks (25 09- 2008).

Coleauges express their support for Hassan Rachidi

 

Petition of support for Hassan Rachidi

“The Dutch, Arab and Asian journalists and other participants in the international conference Better Journalism – More Freedom, organized by Free Voice in The Hague, The Netherlands on 8 and 9 September, want to express their support for Mr. Hassan Rachidi, Bureau chief of Al Jazeera in Morocco. They are convinced that Mr. Rachidi in the reporting he has done on the events in Sidi Ifni on the 7th of June 2008 has respected the international journalistic standards as can be expected from a well experienced and professional journalist. As a consequence we consider that the accusations brought against this colleague in the trial in which he is now involved are misguided and should be withdrawn.”