Swedish freelance photographer Lars Björk was expelled from Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara on the evening of 20 February, a day after his arrest in the territory’s capital, El Aaiún. The authorities made him take the first bus north to Agadir, where he boarded a flight back to Europe.
Arrested for photographing demonstrators without accreditation, Björk spent the entire day of 20 February at police headquarters in El Aaiún. The police asked him to sign a statement, which he refused to do because he does not understand Arabic. At the end of the afternoon, he was told he would have to leave the territory at once.
20.02.2007 Police arrest Swedish freelance photographer in capital of Western Sahara
Reporters Without Borders today condemned the arrest of Swedish freelance photographer Lars Björk yesterday in El Aaiún, the capital of Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, after he took photos of a demonstration by young Sahrawis waving the flag of the pro-independence Polisario Front.
“A professional journalist who has travelled several times to the region cannot be arrested and threatened with prosecution on serious charges without this being seen as an attempt by the Moroccan authorities to prevent any independent coverage of the situation in Western Sahara,” the press freedom organisation said.
“Furthermore, the communication ministry’s vagueness about the criteria for giving foreign journalists accreditation prevents them from working freely,” Reporters Without Borders added.
During the four hours that Björk was detained in the centre of El Aaiún yesterday, his camera and passport were confiscated and he was interrogated for four hours in the city’s main police station. The authorities accused him of being a Polisario Front spy and of organising the demonstration.
“If you are lucky, you will be expelled, and if you are unlucky, you will be prosecuted for having links to a terrorist organisation,” one of the police officers told him before he was finally released and told to return to the police station today. He is still under police control.
Björk, who often works for the Swedish news agency Tidningarnas Telegrambyrå, went to Western Sahara to do a report on illegal immigrant smuggling. He received a late-night visit at his hotel on 14 February from a communications ministry official, who told him he had no right to work as he had no accreditation. His news agency had written to the ministry in December saying he wanted to go to El Aaiún. But the official said he should have sent a second letter just before setting off.
In a similar case, Norwegian journalists Anne Torhild and Radmund Steinsvag have still been unable to get permission from the ministry to go to El Aaiún although they filed a request with the Moroccan embassy in Oslo more than a year ago.