Protect journalists in Western Sahara, organisations warn

Sahrawi journalists reporting on the massive crackdown against civilians in occupied Western Sahara are themselves facing repression and arbitrary arrest by Moroccan forces, according to a report and public appeal by four organisations.

Published 04 December 2020

Above: June last year, the news service Smara News in the occupied territories published a shocking video showing one of their own journalists, Walid El Batal, had been dragged out of a car and beaten by Moroccan police. This is one of the many cases where the UN has issuied strong statements. 

Four organisations today call on individuals and organizations to take action and denounce the targeting of the journalists in Western Sahara, occupied by Morocco. 

The message comes as a consequence of a crackdown on Saharawi journalists. Download the document here. The appeal is made by the two Sahrawi media collectives, Equipe Media and Nushatta Foundation together with the Spanish NGO NomadsHRC and the Norwegian Support Committee for Western Sahara.

"If Morocco succeeds in silencing their voices, the Western Sahara will go pitch dark", it warns.

Working clandestinely and at great risk to their lives, Sahrawi citizen journalists under occupation have been reporting that repression has increased since November 13th, when a 29-year ceasefire between Morocco and the Polisario Front, the Sahrawi liberation movement, came to an end after Morocco launched a military operation against protesting Sahrawi civilians in the demilitarized buffer zone of Guerguerat, in the southern tip of the territory. 

Sahrawi journalists and human rights defenders report that in the weeks since the return to armed conflict, Morocco has flooded the territory it occupies with military and police vehicles and personnel, and dozens of young Sahrawi protesters have been arrested in mass street and home raids. But there are no outside witnesses: international media and human rights monitors are banned from the territory, and the UN peacekeeping mission for Western Sahara does not have a human rights monitoring mandate. Sahrawi citizen journalists remain one of the few sources of information on the ground.

The report says that homes of journalists have been raided, encircled and are under constant surveillance. In the capital city of El Aaiún, armed and masked squads of police and intelligence officers forced their way into the homes of two reporters from the media collective Nushatta Foundation and terrorized their families in search of the journalists, who were not home at the time. A third Nushatta journalist narrowly escaped as police tried to abduct him on a street, also in El Aaiún. All are in hiding. Dozens of vehicles and armed agents also surrounded the homes of two Equipe Media journalists on their wedding day, threatening and harassing the families and preventing them from entering or leaving for three days. 

The increased persecution against Sahrawi journalists has made documenting human rights violations in Western Sahara from afar more challenging, according to the report. While reporting from the territory was already very risky for the journalists before the end of the ceasefire, it is now extremely dangerous and few if any media activists are able to film the scenes of police violence and repression on the streets. 

Operating at great risk from what Reporters without Borders calls a "news blackhole", Sahrawi citizen journalists have become one of the few trusted sources of information for outside news media and human rights monitors, who are barred from entering the territory occupied by Morocco since 1975. 

"Morocco's attempts to silence and prevent Sahrawi journalists from reporting on the situation has aggravated the "news blackhole", providing Morocco with close to total impunity to act against Sahrawi s, the report concludes. 

This is the second public appeal published in relation to the recent escalation of the Western Sahara conflict and the repression witnessed in the occupied territories of Western Sahara, and also provides a comprehensive list of human rights violations since the 13 November as well as additional information about at risk Sahrawi journalists operating in the territory. A first version was published 20 November 2020 and is available online

This second appeal focuses on Sahrawi citizen journalists. With this appeal, we call on individuals and organizations alike to take actions to denounce the targeting of Sahrawi ournalists.

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