The Federación de Asociaciones de Periodistas de España (FAPE) which represents over 20,000 journalists in Spain has issued a strongly worded condemnation of Morocco’s banning of seven Spanish journalists from visiting the Western Sahara.
They were meant to fly from Casablanca to El Aaíun in the Western Sahara to report on the death of a 14-year-old boy in an incident on Sunday. The group representing Efe, Cadena SER, TVE, TV3 and El Mundo were due to travel with Royal Air Moroc but at the last minute were told their tickets had been withdrawn.
The journalists were all accredited to work in Morocco but since July 1 the Ministry of Communications has restricted foreign journalists to the capital Rabat unless they have been given specific permission to report from elsewhere.
FAPE stressed to the Moroccan authorities that in Spain the media was allowed to work freely and this was the norm in all democratic countries. It also restated the words of Morocco’s monarch, Mohammed VI, who promised three years after taking over the throne to honour press freedom. At the time he stated: “We want to reaffirm our firm decision to consolidate the freedom of the press, to preserve information pluralism and to guarantee the modernization of the sector that represents one of the pillars of our project for a modern democratic society.”
Spain’s relations with Morocco are fraught at the best of times. On one level there is the normal day to day relationship based on being neighbours across the Strait of Gibraltar. More difficult is the situation regarding the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla which Spain views as being an integral part of the country whilst Morocco sees Spain as an occupying power. Then there is the Western Sahara which was literally abandoned by Spain in the dying days of Franco and left to Morocco and Mauritania to administer. When Mauritania withdrew Morocco annexed the area. Since then the people of the Western Sahara have sought independence but Morocco will only offer autonomy and moves towards that status have been slow in starting.
The Moroccan government has accused the Western Sahara independence movement Polisario and its backer Algeria of using journalists to politicise social demands by protestors who have set up a tent camp near the Saharan capital El Aaíun. Morocco perceives Spanish media as often siding with Polisario and has accused Algeria of using Spanish journalists in a “media war” against Morocco.
The incident the Spanish journalists wanted to cover was the killing of 14-year-old Najem el-Guareh near the protest camp on Sunday. There are two versions of the story. The Moroccan Interior Ministry stated on Tuesday that two cars tried to force their way through a police checkpoint. In one of the cars was Ahmed Daoudi, a known criminal who was transporting weapons in order to take revenge on the protestors who had expelled him from their camp. The occupants of one of the cars opened fire, forcing police to respond.
The camp residents tell a different story. According to the Spanish newspaper El País they denied the car occupants had opened fire. El-Guareh was shot. Several others, including Daoudi, were reportedly injured with at least one other person is reported to be in a serious condition.
On Wednesday it was reported that the mother of Najem el-Guareh had made an official complaint against the Gendarmería Real officers who shot him. She has also refused to accept his body until a post-mortem and investigation is carried out.
The demonstrators are demanding social improvements such as better housing. Morocco has cut down on the construction of social housing because of the economic crisis. The protest was taking separatist undertones, though it was not initially believed to be associated with Polisario.
Even the size of the camp is open to dispute with Morocco saying there are 1,000 protestors whilst Spanish sources say 10,000. However until Morocco opens up its country and the Western Sahara to the international news media the truth will never be known and in turn Morocco cannot be considered a modern democratic nation.
(The above article appeared in Panorama and a version of the above in The Morning Star on October 28 and 29 2010).