In a post-COVID-19 world, “fake news” laws, a new blow to freedom of expression in Algeria and Morocco/Western Sahara?

By Yasmine Kacha, Algeria /Morocco/Western Sahara researcher

On 27 April, a court in Morocco ordered the arrest and prosecution of human rights defender Omar Naji, citing article 447-2 of the penal code which threatens anyone who spreads "false allegations or lies" with the aim of "harming privacy or defamation" with a prison sentence of up to three years and a fine of up to 20.000 dirhams (around US$2,000).

As evidence, the judge in the northern city of Nador used a comment Naji had published on Facebook a week earlier, about police officers seizing merchandize from street vendors to redistribute to non-profit organizations. Naji, from the Moroccan Association of Human Rights (AMDH), was released on bail the next day but the legal proceedings against him are still ongoing and his next trial hearing is scheduled on 2 June. 

The best way to counter false and misleading information is by ensuring that all people have access to evidence-based and trustworthy information, not by throwing people in jail for speaking up their minds and imposing a tight leash on social media
Yasmine Kacha

Naji's prosecution is yet another example of existing legal provisions in Morocco/Western Sahara being used to censor and punish free speech online. In the near future, we can expect to see many more such cases under draft law number 22.20 to criminalize the unclear notion of “fake news”, which the government’s council adopted on 19 March, before announcing on 7 May the text's review.

Several provisions in the law on the use of Social Networks and Similar Networks, the details of which were leaked to the media, are alarming. For example, its articles 16 to 19 provide that spreading "fake news" is punishable by prison sentences of up to five years when the purpose is to harm "national security".

This clampdown on the right to freedom of expression – using “fake news” as a pretext -- is not confined to Morocco. There have also been changes to the law in neighboring Algeria, where on 22 April, Parliament adopted amendments to the penal code, adding an article which punishes anyone spreading "lies" aimed at "harming state security" with up to three years in prison and fines of up to 300.000 DA (around US$2,322).

At a time where people’s health and livelihoods are at risk, countries should not be using the spread of "fake news" and the crisis sparked by COVID-19 as an excuse to repress online critics.
Yasmine Kacha

In its 2019 Annual Report, Amnesty International highlights that Algeria and Morocco/Western Sahara both frequently use penal code provisions to arrest and prosecute people whose only crime was to freely express their views online,. The effect on freedom of expression of these latest measures taken amid the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis, are extremely worrying.

These tougher laws are being adopted at a time when citizens most need to have unhindered access to information about the pandemic and the measures that are being taken to protect public health, as well as to be able to question the governments’ measures or criticize the flaws and shortfalls of their response to the pandemic.

These governments might also impose new obligations on social media platforms, which play a crucial role in allowing people to access reliable information and express their opinions.  Draft-Bill 22.20, orders the establishment of an effective redress mechanism for users complaining about "unlawful content", which can be prone to abuse as it relates to vague notions such as "threatening public order, security and the Monarchy's constants". The draft law contemplates sanctions if these provisions are not respected, going from official warnings to heavy fines by an "oversight body", which identity, role and prerogatives remain unclear.    

Though States should make sure that companies do not abuse the right to freedom of expression, they must also refrain from imposing duties to proactively monitor online content or intermediary liability regimes that incentivize overbroad censorship over their users.

At Amnesty International, I have documented dozens of cases where human rights activists and journalists were summoned, prosecuted and detained in Algeria and Morocco/Western Sahara simply for their online posts on social media. We have called relentlessly on States to drop the charges and release those individuals immediately and unconditionally.

However, not only have these governments failed to release all those individuals who have been detained solely for expressing their opinions, they are now stepping up their efforts to censor relevant information uncomfortable for the government or use the COVID-19 crisis as a pretext to silence the voices of dissent.

At a time where people’s health and livelihoods are at risk, countries should not be using the spread of "fake news" and the crisis sparked by COVID-19 as an excuse to repress online critics. The best way to counter false and misleading information is by ensuring that all people have access to evidence-based and trustworthy information, not by throwing people in jail for speaking up their minds and imposing a tight leash on social media.