Ahmed Ettanji is looking for a flat in downtown Laayoune, a city 1,100 km south of Rabat. He only wants it for one day but it must have a rooftop terrace overlooking the square that will host the next pro-Sahrawi demonstration.
“Rooftop terraces are essential for us as they are the only places from which we can get a graphic testimony of the brutality we suffer from the Moroccan police,” Ettanji told IPS. This 26-year-old is one the leaders of the Equipe Media, a group of Sahrawi volunteers struggling to break the media blackout enforced by Rabat over the territory.
“There are no news agencies based here and foreign journalists are denied access, and even deported if caught inside,” stressed Ettanji.
Spanish journalist Luís de Vega is one of several foreign journalists who can confirm the activist´s claim – he was expelled in 2010 after spending eight years based in Rabat and declared persona non grata by the Moroccan authorities.
“The Western Sahara issue is among the most sensitive issues for journalists in Morocco. Those of us who dare to tackle it inevitably face the consequences,” de Vega told IPS over the phone, adding that he was “fully convinced” that his was an exemplary punishment because he was the foreign correspondent who had spent more time in Morocco.
Since the ceasefire signed in 1991 between Morocco and the Polisario Front – the authority that the United Nations recognises as a legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people – Rabat has controlled almost the whole territory, including the entire Atlantic coast. The United Nations still labels Western Sahara as a “territory under an unfinished process of decolonisation”.
Mohamed Mayara, also a member of Equipe Media, is helping Ettanji to find the rooftop terrace. Like most his colleagues, he acknowledges having been arrested and tortured several times. The constant harassment, however, has not prevented him from working enthusiastically, although he admits that there are other limitations than those dealing with any underground activity:
“We set up the first group in 2009 but a majority of us are working on pure instinct. We have no training in media so we are learning journalism on the spot,” said Mayara, a Sahrawi born in the year of the invasion who writes reports and press releases in English and French. His father disappeared in the hands of the Moroccan army two months after he was born, and he says he has known nothing about him ever since.
Today the majority of the Sahrawis live in the refugee camps in Tindouf, in Western Algeria. The members of Equipe Media say they have a “fluid communication” with the Polisario authorities based there. Other than sharing all the material they gather, they also work side by side with Hayat Khatari, the only reporter currently working openly for SADR TV. SADR stands for ‘Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic’.
Khatari, a 24-year-old journalist, recalls that she started working in 2010, after the Gdeim Izzik protest camp incidents in Laayoune. Originally a peaceful protest camp, Gdeim Izzik resulted in riots that spread to other Sahrawi cities when it was forcefully dismantled after 28 days on Nov. 8.
Western analysts such as Noam Chomsky have argued that the so-called “Arab Spring” did not start in Tunisia as is commonly argued, but rather in Laayoune.
“We have to work really hard and risk a lot to be able to counterbalance the propaganda spread by Rabat about everything happening here,” Khatari told IPS. The young activist added that she was last arrested in December 2014 for covering a pro-independence demonstration in June 2014. Unlike Mahmood al Lhaissan, her predecessor in SADR TV, Khatari was released after a few days in prison.
In a report released in March, Reporters Without Borders records al Lhaissan´s case. The activist was released provisionally on Feb. 25, eight months after his arrest in Laayoune, but he is still facing trial on charges of participating in an “armed gathering,” obstructing a public thoroughfare, attacking officials while they were on duty, and damaging public property.
In the same report, Reporters Without Borders also denounces the deportation in February of French journalists Jean-Louis Perez and Pierre Chautard, who were reporting for France 3 on the economic and social situation in Morocco.
Before seizing their video recordings and putting them on a flight to Paris, the authorities arrested them at the headquarters of Moroccan Association of Human Rights (AMDH), one of the country’s leading human rights NGOs, which the interior ministry has accused of “undermining the actions of the security forces”.
Likewise, other major organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have repeatedly denounced human rights abuses suffered by the Sahrawi people at the hands of Morocco over the last decades.
Despite several phone calls and e-mails, the Moroccan authorities did not respond to IPS’s requests for comments on these and other human rights violations allegedly committed in Western Sahara.
Back in downtown Laayoune, Equipe Media activists seemed to have found what they were looking for. The owner of the central apartment is a Sahrawi family. It could have not been otherwise.
“We would never ask a Moroccan such a thing,” said Ettanji from the rooftop terrace overlooking the spot where the upcoming protest would take place.
Edited by Phil Harris