In spring 2015, police came to journalist Hicham Mansouri’s home, beat and stripped him, and arrested him on charges of abetting prostitution and committing adultery, which is illegal in Morocco.
Even though pivotal evidence in the case was discredited, he was convicted and locked up for 10 months, during which he launched a hunger strike to protest abuses. Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience.
Mansouri and free-speech advocates say his real offense was to investigate the Moroccan government’s online surveillance of activists and journalists, of which he had received a key piece of evidence the day before his arrest. Facing a second trial, on charges of threatening state security, he left Morocco in January 2016. He now lives in Paris, where he is in residence at La Maison des Journalistes, a center for persecuted journalists in exile, and contributes to the center’s website, L’Oeil de l’Exilé.
In some ways, Mansouri was a natural target. He was a member of the 20 February Movement, Morocco’s version of the Arab Spring, and had led investigations into the royal family’s business dealings. In 2014, he was badly beaten, though not robbed, in an attack he believes was politically motivated. A later investigation that likely further displeased the authorities was a 2016 story about a lucrative deal to ship toxic waste from Italy to be burned in cement factories owned by the king.
In addition to working for the Machahid regional newspaper and contributing to the Lakome2 website, Mansouri co-founded the Moroccan Association for Investigative Journalism. He has received grants from Front Line Defenders, a human rights group, and the Committee to Protect Journalists. He has also been a coordinator for Free Press Unlimited, a Dutch group that has developed an app to facilitate multimedia reporting.
It was that app – StoryMaker – that Moroccan authorities questioned Mansouri about when he was arrested for a second time, on the national security charge. He was one of several activists and journalists involved in that project to be charged, amid a wider crackdown on Moroccan journalists and civil society activists.
The government in Morocco uses law enforcement, accusations of terrorist sympathies, and financial leverage to control press coverage. Certain topics, such as the monarchy, the disputed territory of Western Sahara, and Islam, are off limits for most news organizations in Morocco, which Reporters Without Borders ranks at 133 of 180 countries in its most recent global press freedom index. Foreign reporters have been kicked out and domestic journalists jailed for covering unrest, and news organizations are manipulated through awards or revocation of government advertising and subsidies.
Mansouri says independent reporting is scarce in Morocco, and there is almost no money for investigations. “The few independent media are struggling to survive, which makes it almost impossible for them to fund investigative reporting,” he says.
Despite being abroad, Mansouri continues to expose injustice and problems in his homeland that many Moroccan journalists avoid.
“I have an almost biological need to fight for the truth and thus help people have better lives,” he says.