Morocco presents itself to the West as a key ally for building a democratic and secure North Africa. When Moroccan King Mohammed VI meets with President Obama during his visit to the United States today, a place many Americans have never heard of will likely loom large on the agenda: Western Sahara.
Africa’s longest-running conflict hinges on the right to self-determination for Western Sahara’s original inhabitants, the Sahrawis – a right that Morocco opposes. The Sahrawis have waited decades for a promised UN referendum allowing them to vote on the fate of their homeland, occupied by Morocco for nearly 40 years. Far from promoting security in the region, as the Moroccan government purports, suppression of a political option for the Sahrawis could in fact push the younger generations to resort to violence, destabilizing the region.
This former Spanish colony was forcibly annexed by Morocco in 1975 and is considered a non-self-governing territory awaiting decolonization by the United Nations. One reason it isn’t on the global radar is that journalists have historically faced great difficulty accessing and reporting from Western Sahara. Morocco’s draconian press code criminalizes speech that would “cause harm” to its “territorial integrity” (referring to the country’s disputed claim over Western Sahara).
This makes it impossible for Moroccan journalists to report freely on the conflict unless they are willing to face jail time; for members of the foreign media, the situation is also fraught with challenges. Numerous European journalists have been expelled from Western Sahara by Moroccan authorities. In 2010, American journalist John Thorne and a Human Rights Watch research assistant accompanying him were harassed and detained by Moroccan security forces in Laayoune, the territory’s capital.
Two delegations of journalists received rare permission to visit Western Sahara in late 2012 and early 2013. In spite of unprecedented access, they faced heavy surveillance, both physical and digital, at every turn, under the guise of protecting the journalists.
Like a scene out of a bad spy movie, Western press delegations visiting Western Sahara were tailed constantly by security agents on motorbikes wearing sunglasses and baseball caps pulled low over their faces. When the journalists tried to conduct interviews in cafes or on the street, some of Laayoune’s Sahrawi residents were understandably terrified to speak freely, with government informants idling menacingly nearby.
The second reporting trip to Laayoune coincided with a major protest following a failed US attempt to add a human rights monitoring mandate to the UN mission in Western Sahara, MINURSO. During the visit, thousands of Sahrawis took to the streets to demonstrate for their right to self-determination, under the gaze of hundreds of Moroccan security forces dressed in full riot gear, with military trucks lining the street behind them.
That night, during an interview with the Sahrawi human rights activist Aminatou Haidar, the journalists heard rocks pelting the walls and windows of the home in which the group was meeting, and looked outside to witness men in riot gear stoning Ms. Haidar’s car as well. Their message of intimidation was received loud and clear.
One delegation participant described the experience of reporting from Western Sahara as reminiscent of her time covering Libya under Qaddafi and Egypt under Mubarak.
King Mohammed VI comes to Washington seeking US backing for Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara, specifically its proposed autonomy plan, which would effectively quash many Sahrawis’ desire to cast their ballots for independence. In the lead up to his visit, the king’s powerful friends in Washington, D.C.’s top lobby shops have been busy greasing the wheels for what they hope will be a smooth acceptance of Moroccan sovereignty over the territory.
It would be wise for Mr. Obama to examine what’s happening in Western Sahara with a critical eye. Without the promise of a referendum, an already disillusioned Sahrawi youth could give up on seeking a peaceful resolution, contributing to further instability in North Africa. And without a push for an end to Morocco’s repressive press laws, the world will never get a full picture of the reality on the ground.
Elisa Lees Muñoz is executive director of the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF). The IWMF led two delegations of women journalists on reporting trips to Laayoune, Western Sahara in December 2012 and May 2013.