Victim’s Rights Versus Press Freedom: Moroccan Journalists’ Vying Voices

A battle is playing out in a controversial rape case in Morocco between press freedom and victims’ rights. The accused is a well known Moroccan journalist; the alleged victim was an unknown one. Both may well be victims of the system, but whose voice is being heard?

Moroccan journalist Hafsa Boutahar filed a complaint against a well known journalist, Omar Radi, alleging that he had raped her in July 2020. According to Boutahar, Radi, who had been drinking all evening, took advantage of the confinement situation under Morocco’s COVID-19 lockdown, when they and another colleague were assigned to sleep one night in the basement of their employer’s house where they had been working, to force her to have sex.

Victim’s Rights Versus Press Freedom – Moroccan Journalists’ Vying Voices
Hafsa Boutahar. (Twitter)

After much reflection, Boutahar said, she decided to go to the public prosecutor 10 days after the alleged rape. Now pending before a Casablanca court, the case has received substantial national and international press because of the high profile of Boutahar’s alleged assailant.

The prevalent narrative in the media, however, has portrayed her not as a victim of rape, but as a tool the Moroccan state is using to silence a disruptive journalist who has spoken out against government abuses of civil and human rights and press freedom.

Since well before the pandemic, Morocco has been cracking down on journalists critical of government policies and corruption. Like Radi, a number of them have been accused of sexual assault in addition to other crimes against the state. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) asserts that this has become the pernicious and prevalent method in Morocco of silencing problematic journalists and critics. 

In April, CPJ joined a statement with 14 other rights organizations calling out the “weaponization of sexual crime accusations by [Moroccan] authorities, including consensual sexual relations, in order to discredit and even imprison dissidents.” 

Radi has been in pretrial detention since July 2020 on rape as well as other charges.  His rape trial was scheduled to begin April 6, but the court postponed it without explanation to April 27, then May 18, and now June 1.

Radi went on a hunger strike on April 9, but was forced to break it on April 30 due to illness. He suffers from debilitating Crohn’s disease, according to his family.

Despite the immediacy of her coming forward and the clarity with which she recounted the details of the rape, since the filing of her complaint, Boutahar has been vilified in the press, in social media, and by many journalist colleagues and former friends. Nearly all have taken the side of Radi, discounting her story, and calling it a fabrication and/or a conspiracy with the state in order to bring him down. 

Boutahar has been trashed publicly—and unethically—by the lawyers defending Radi in the pending rape case.

The negative consequences of coming forward have been significant for Boutahar.  Not only has she also lost her job at LeDesk, but she has faced constant harassment in tweets and Facebook posts.  Her Twitter account has been inundated by men calling her the vilest of names, their tweeted replies to her in the Moroccan dialect worse than just vulgar. They have threatened to release allegedly compromising photographs of her.

Since she went public, she has been victimized again and again, facing public hostility, ostracism, and outright threats.  This sustained campaign of harassment has adversely affected both her physical and mental health. 

Boutahar reached out to human rights organizations in Morocco and elsewhere. Most international human rights organizations merely ignored her. The principal Moroccan rights NGO, the Moroccan Association of Human Rights (AMDH-Association Marocaine des Droits Humains) outright rejected her claim.

When she sought assistance and support, AMDH interrogated her like a criminal, according to Boutahar. Before they had even met with her, they forwarded her written correspondence requesting the meeting to her alleged rapist for comment. 

Many media outlets have reported the story with one-sided coverage without reaching out to her for comment.  The most egregious example, according to Boutahar, is the Washington Post op-ed critical of the crown prosecutor’s rape charges against Radi. She said the Post did not contact her.  

What is most striking is the alignment against her not only of journalists, but also of human rights activists that one might expect to champion the rights of an alleged rape victim. The blame-the-victim mentality is so entrenched and the taboo on reporting rape so intense that her voice has been marginalized. The effective impact is that her alleged rape has been subordinated to the supposed higher ideal of press freedom.

Press freedom does not trump women’s rights. The allegations of victims should be taken seriously. They deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. They deserve to have their voices heard. They should not be silenced by the press or in the court of public opinion. They deserve their day in court.

For journalists to act otherwise is contrary to professional guidance on how journalists should treat victims: fairly, even when their colleagues stand accused by them.

Morocco’s National Press Union has stated that Boutahar has a right to seek justice in court. Whether she can prevail under Moroccan law is uncertain. Stephanie Willman Bordat, an attorney and the founder of Mobilizing for Rights Associates in Rabat, said that Morocco has a standard of sexual assault that is “very difficult to meet.”

Boutahar has taken a stand to control her narrative, reclaim her dignity, and seek justice.  Despite the backlash that has clearly taken a toll on her, she has been indefatigable in her crusade for fairness and women’s rights.

On March 10, she held a press conference and spoke out against organizations whose mission is to protect human rights. They failed to listen to her, she asserted, much less support her right to seek justice in a court of law. She urged women to speak out about sexual violence, even when local and international human rights organizations turn their backs.

“What happened to me is true,” she said. “I am fighting alone, and I won’t stop until I get my dignity back.”

Editor’s note: This article is based in part upon an interview with Hafsa Boutahar on November 12, 2020.

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Elisabeth Myers (@semibrief) is an attorney, an adjunct associate professor of law at her alma mater American University’s Washington College of Law, and former founding editor-in-chief of online magazine Inside Arabia. She is based in Marrakech, Morocco.