Morocco: A complete blackout during protests in Al-Hoceima

Last year, a rare series of protests ignited across northern Morocco when a fish vendor was crushed to death by a trash compactor while trying to retrieve a catch that had been confiscated by police. Since then, residents of Al-Hoceima — a city in the north of Morocco, on the northern edge of the Rif Mountains — have been protesting to draw attention to the region’s neglect and marginalization. The “Al Hirak” movement has continued to gain strength, with demonstrators across Morocco’s Rif region demanding access to basic services like schools and universities, hospitals, and libraries.

In response, Morocco’s government has promised new development projects, but at the same time is taking extraordinary measures to prevent Al Hirak protesters from gaining attention outside the region — from arresting journalists coming to the region to cover the movement to imposing communications blackouts during the protests.

Unfortunately, this situation is far from unique. Stopping protests is the number one reason governments shut down the internet worldwide, according to the #KeepItOn campaign’s STOP Shutdown Tracker. In Morocco, the link between shutdowns and broad human rights violations is particularly clear.

Internet shutdowns prevent Facebook Live broadcasts

For the Al Hirak movement, Facebook Live, a service that lets you broadcast video live through Facebook, has been a crucial tool for raising awareness and garnering support. Almost every day, the protesters of Al-Hoceima broadcast live on the social network their marches and public meetings — as well as incidents of police repression — with many videos getting thousands of views.

But according to information provided by the activists, when Moroccan authorities realized protests were being broadcast live on the internet, they issued orders to telcos to block both internet and phone network connections during protests. This has significantly undermined protesters’ ability to share their movement with the rest of the world.

Usually, the shutdowns last four to five hours during protests and then authorities restore connectivity. However, sometimes shutdowns continue for two to three days, leaving residents of Al-Hoceima in complete isolation. These shutdowns are especially damaging in an environment where peaceful protesters are often met with violent police repression, and hundreds in the community — some even as young as 14 years old — have been arrested for participating in demonstrations. (In the most recent sentencing hearing, protesters were given up to 20 years in prison.) Without messaging apps and mobile connections, people lose crucial time in responding to emergencies, assisting those injured and arrested, and contacting journalists.

Local residents in Al-Hoceima have also reported slow or inconsistent connections to popular communications platforms including Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp, even after a shutdown has ended — indicating these disruptions may be contributing to overall infrastructure degradation in the region.

A Moroccan human rights activist who experienced the shutdown in Al-Hoceima told Access Now (translated from the original French):

“On the July 20 protests in Al-Hoceima, access to internet and network was cut off most the time. We couldn’t receive or make calls, we felt lonely and isolated, and we experienced a new form of repression, knowing that the U.N. has considered access to the internet a human right since 2012.”

“We were cut off from the world without internet or telephone network from the beginning of the afternoon until the evening around 9.pm”

Al-Hoceima is in complete separation from global media and civil society

As protests continue, journalists face a host of restrictions, including media bans, deportations, and threats of prosecution for trying to cover Al Hirak events. On September 28, for example, a journalist from The Guardian was expelled from Morocco by local authorities for trying to cover protests in Al-Hoceima.

Civil society organizations from outside the region are facing similar conditions. A Maghreb delegation — organized by the Committee for the Respect of Freedoms and Human Rights (CRLDHT), the Tunisian Forum of Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), the Yaqadha Association (Vigilance for Democracy and Civil Status), accompanied by a delegation of Tunisian lawyers and the Forum of Alternatives Morocco (FMAS) — planned to visit Al-Hoceima on October 17, 2017, to observe the trial of 21 Al Hirak protesters and to show Tunisian civil society’s solidarity with affected families, prisoners, and local activists. However, The Moroccan authorities canceled their hotel reservations in Al-Hoceima and turned them back at a police checkpoint 45km away from the entrance to the city.

Governments around the world are using internet shutdowns to silence dissent

The type of internet shutdowns we’re seeing in Morocco are part of a trend across the globe. From India, to Somaliland, to Catalonia, governments are using network disruptions to limit the flow of information, discourage mobilization of protesters, and silence dissenting voices.

Repeated shutdowns like those in Morocco cause widespread damage even beyond the immediate harm to free expression. Entrenched blocks like in Cameroon, where authorities have restricted internet access and the use of social media in the Anglophone regions for months on end, will prevent countries from reaching the Sustainable Development Goals and discourage people from depending on the internet for transferring money, goods, and services.

In every instance, internet shutdowns — defined as intentional disruptions of internet or other electronic communications — undermine human rights. They limit freedom of expression and suppress access to information when it is most critical, including in the lead-up to elections. Further, shutdowns in times of unrest prevent people from communicating with loved ones, accessing emergency services, and holding authorities accountable for human rights violations.

Governments often also overlook the serious economic impact of undermining connectivity, particularly in regions that are already struggling. Small business owners often depend on the internet to connect with customers and deliver services, and being disconnected for even just one day can impose a significant financial burden.

What can you do to help?

We encourage everyone to share the news about the situation in Morocco on Twitter or Facebook, and to keep track of developments on internet disruptions through our global #KeepItOn Campaign. Show your solidarity with Al-Hoceima by speaking out in defense of human rights for everyone, by using movement hashtags, such as #حراك_الريف (#Hirak) (#Rif) and #الحرية_للمعتقلين  #morocco #الحسيمة.

Telcos in Morocco and beyond should draft a human rights policy, and release transparency reports to disclose government requests for shutdowns and surveillance. If you or someone you know has been personally impacted by the internet shutdowns in Morocco, you can also help to #KeepItOn by sharing your story.

Photograph of the protestors © Euronews