Reporters Without Borders has called on the Moroccan authorities to put an end to harassment of local and foreign media in Western Sahara and allow them to work normally.
At least ten journalists have been attacked, arrested or even expelled from the city of Laayoune, 1,263 kilometres south of Rabat, since the beginning of April 2005.
"It is essential that the Moroccan authorities set out a clear framework for journalists covering Western Sahara, avoiding indirect control methods such as having to inform the interior ministry prior to their arrival in Laayoune", the organisation said.
"The Moroccan authorities swing from one extreme to the other by banning coverage of all demonstrations in Laayoune then chartering a plane two days later to take journalists to lunch with the governor.
"Moreover, the security argument is not enough to ban access to the city to reporters. This is a decision for the journalists and their editorial offices. Even in Iraq, the government does not ban journalists from the country or travelling to a particular region," Reporters Without Borders added.
Large numbers of journalists went to Laayoune to cover demonstrations from 24-29 May between Sahrawis and security forces. They were treated in a variety of different ways.
Salama Zoukani, a technician with Laayoune regional television was brutally beaten by security forces on 25 May, who took no notice of his press card. He needed several stitches to a head wound. Police officers also damaged his vehicle.
Several journalists were initially prevented from entering the city between 27 May and 5 June, while the authorities organised guided visits and a lunch with the governor to accompany their coverage of the demonstrations.
Correspondent in Morocco for satellite Arabic television al-Jazeera, Abdessalam Razzak, was turned back at the airport without explanation on 27 May. He was only able to return two days later as part of the official visit organised by the governor.
At the start of June two more journalists were stopped at Layyoune airport. They were Lahcen Aouad, of the Arabic-language daily Assahifa, and Murad Burja, a freelance photographer. After checking their papers, the airport authorities told them that they were "banned" from the city. They had to wait respectively six hours and two hours before being allowed to enter.
Journalist Miguel Ángel Idígoras Urrezola and his cameraman from Spanish television TVE arrived in Laayoune on 28 May. On that day they were prevented from freely filming demonstrations and could not send their report from Moroccan television studios because of "technical problems". But the next day, after taking part in the visit organised by the governor, they were able to work and send their footage without difficulty.
A journalist expelled
Journalist on the Basque-language daily Berria, Maria Cristina Berasain, was refused entry to Laayoune on 2 June. Since she had not given her reasons for her visit to the south of the country, she was expelled and police frog-marched her to a plane headed for Agadir some 649 kilometres from Laayoune. Having obtained permission from the information ministry a few days later, she was then refused access to a plane for Laayoune. She said that the Moroccan authorities’ control of news showed that they had things to hide.
Two journalists prevented from working independently
Freelance Norwegian journalists, Anne Torhild Nilsen and Radmund Steinsvag, travelled to Western Sahara in April to make a documentary on human rights in the region. They did not disclose their profession to the authorities so they could work independently. On 17 April they wanted to film a peaceful demonstration. "I crossed the barricades around the demonstrators and started to film," Steinsvag told Reporters Without Borders. "Less than a minute later several police officers surrounded me and told me to go elsewhere. Another police officer then arrived and asked to see what I had filmed. I refused and he moved on.
"I was looking for a bus when I saw plain-clothes police who were transporting injured people on stretchers. When they realised I was there, they told me to leave. When I refused they dragged me 100 metres and took me to a police post for interrogation before releasing me," she added.
"The next day we went to the offices of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) to do an interview. We had started filming 250 metres away, when police intervened and told us to stop. After taking our papers they told us to follow them to the police post. We were questioned there separately for more than hour hours.
"After the questioning, they suggested that we change our programme to meet other people than Sidi Mohammed Daddach whom they presented as not a real spokesman for the Sahrawi people. The people we met along with leaders of other pro-Moroccan human rights organisations is seen by local people, as puppet organisations since they only appear at the behest of the authorities.
"We met three chairmen of organisations in one of the most luxurious local hotels. They tried to persuade use that local people were no longer either harassed or tortured, that the street demonstrations had been authorised and that most Sahrawis wanted to be part of Morocco.
It was somewhat strange to hear this discourse, after being followed all week by secret police in Laayoune and having been arrested twice. The Moroccan authorities did treat us well and never seized our equipment but they did control our two last days there and prevented us from working independently," the two Norwegian journalists said.