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Western Sahara violence unleashes a media war

Information on the recent clashes between Sahrawis and Moroccan troops has been notoriously thin and confused. One of the upshots of this has been a dispute between Spain and Morocco over who has the better –or worse– media.


Restrictions on the Spanish media’s coverage of the recent dismantling of the Gdaym Izik protest camp in Western Sahara were so severe, it is amazing so many column inches have been filled on the issue. With some newspaper reporters mysteriously told at Rabat airport that their tickets were not valid to travel to Laâyoune, and others, such as two correspondents from La Ser radio station, expelled from the region, it hasn’t been easy to cover the story.

This might explain why there has been so much confusion over what exactly happened on November 8, when Moroccan troops entered the camp to bring an end to the protest. At the time many media in Spain, informed it seems by pro-Sahrawi groups, reported that up to 20 people died in the clashes; the pro-independence Polisario Front even spoke of “dozens” of Sahrawis being killed. The Moroccan government, meanwhile, said that 13 people were killed: 11 members of the security forces and two civilians.

From Madrid, at least, it seemed Morocco had little in the way of a leg to stand on. With virtually all the mainstream media from left to right condemning Rabat for what they saw as brutal repression (and also attacking the Spanish government for not also condemning it), it has been hard to find a Spanish voice willing to defend the southern neighbour. And when the Spanish culture minister suggested Javier Bardem and other pro-Sahrawi celebrities who weren’t “experts” in the issue stay out of it, both governments started to look like particularly easy targets.

Rabat has insisted all along –and not for the first time- that the Spanish media is ganging up on it due to an “anti-Moroccan” or even racist agenda. The official Moroccan news agency, Agence Maghreb Arabe Press, ran a typical headline on November 16: “Govt. reiterates strong condemnation of hateful deviations of some Spanish media outlets”.

Rabat feels partly vindicated by the fact that Human Rights Watch (whose representative says he was twice refused permission to fly to Western Sahara by the country’s airline) has confirmed its own casualty figures. After releasing video footage of a Moroccan soldier seemingly having his throat slit by a protester and another man urinating on the corpse of a soldier, Morocco clearly feels the propaganda war has swung its way.

Moreover, the erroneous use by several Spanish newspapers of a photograph apparently showing wounded Sahrawi children, which was in fact taken in Gaza in 2006, reflected poorly on the rigour of the media involved. Moroccan-American website Moroccoboard lambasted the “waltz of inaccurate, false statement and fabrications from the Media in Spain” and cited two further cases of allegedly poor reporting: the announcement of the death of two Sahrawis who it says are still alive and the invention of a quote attributed to the head of a Moroccan NGO in El Mundo newspaper.

In correcting the Gaza photo error, El País defended itself on the grounds that this story is not taking place in a democracy as we know it, stating: “Coverage of the incidents in El Aaiun has been almost impossible for the Spanish media who have been refused access to the ex-colony.”

The real situation in El Aaiun is still far from clear, as reflected by the fact that UN officials reportedly prepared their initial statement about the Gdaym Izik camp violence while watching YouTube videos.

And so with a vacuum of information on the November 8 incident itself and the Zapatero government refusing to risk hurting relations with Rabat, a different kind of dispute has arisen between Spain and Morocco: not so much who’s got the fairer country, but more specifically, who has a better –or worse– media. For Spain, the Moroccan press is the puppet of an undemocratic regime (of the kind it feels it left behind over 30 years ago when Franco died), while for Rabat, Spain’s cynical media is intent on distorting the facts to make it look backward. In such a fracas, neither side is likely to emerge as winner, let alone look good.

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Published: Nov 22 2010
Category: Politics
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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1 Comment for “Western Sahara violence unleashes a media war”

  1. Beniazza Mohammed /B

    What exactly happened on November 8, when Moroccan security forces entered the camp .

    Thousands of Saharawi people from the southern provinces of Morocco

    known as the Western Sahara left their homes to set up camp fifteen

    kilometres from El Aaaiun city, in protest against the social policy

    of the Moroccan government in western Sahara.Protesters claimed that

    while Morocco offers benefits to refugees returning from Tindouf camps

    in Algeria with all its human rights violations , many Sahrawis who

    never left Morocco have not yet received anything. The Sahrawi

    demonstrators wanted Morocco to ensure their right to employment,

    housing and a decent living. "We are not against giving privileges to

    our brothers returning from the camps of Tindouf. We also recognise

    their suffering endured in the camps, and the risks they have taken

    during their escape from the Algerian camps through the miles of

    desert to their homeland ( Morocco). However, we as Moroccan indigenous

    residents feel the oppression because no one cares about us and the

    suffering of our youth from unemployment and neglect and the

    difficulty of living," Mohammed Salem Salek told The I.C.D.H.R. in


    However, when the Moroccan government,that has spent billions of

    dollars on western Sahara,started to solve the social problems of the

    protesters,some traffickers, gangs and opportunists serving the

    foreign agendas of the Polisario separatists and their mentor Algeria

    resorted to blackmail and violence to prevent people from leaving the


    The Moroccan security forces,who were in a difficult situation of

    self-defense and, which left 10 painful casualties among them, did not

    fire a single gunshot in their intervention.The result is that 70 elements of the

    security forces have been injured .

    Videos and photos

    These videos and photos show that while Morocco is working hard to consolidate democracy and human rights for the benefit of all its people, Polisario and its backer Algeria are plotting against Moroccan territorial integrity by using traffickers, gangs and killers to destroy and burn laayoune city –the capital of the Moroccan southern provinces known as Western Sahara,and to murder Moroccan security forces in difficult situations of self-defense. Yet, some Spanish media outlets act as if they were a party to the

    conflict, and this is proved through their use of disinformation and

    distortion of truth.

    A Lasting Political Solution To The Conflict.

    The Kingdom of Morocco launched aninnovative and imaginative plan, in April 2007 to put an end to the whole problem. Morocco has offered its southern provinces of the

    Sahara a large autonomy within the context of Moroccan

    sovereignty.Many great countries such as The United States and France

    reiterate that Morocco's proposal to grant substantial autonomy to its

    Southern provinces, known as the Sahara, is likely to help find a

    solution to the 35-year dispute over the former Spanish colony, with

    Washington dismissing as "unrealistic" the establishment of an

    independent state in the region as called for by the Polisario

    separatists and their mentor Algeria.The Moroccan proposal offers the

    people of the Sahara, the Sahrawis, the opportunity to run their own

    affairs democratically through their representative legislative,

    executive and judicial bodies, while benefiting from Moroccan

    sovereignty in matters of foreign affairs and defence.This Initiative

    for the Sahara region will enable the Sahrawi People to achieve

    self-determination through free, modern and democratic means, and

    accords with both international law and internationally accepted norms

    and standards. It is the resolution of this thirty-five-year conflict,

    that will facilitate the economic and democratic development of the

    whole Maghreb and help to promote peace, security and stability in

    North Africa.

    The Initiative was launched to overcome the deadlock in United

    Nations’ mediated negotiations between the Kingdom of Morocco and the

    Republic of Algeria and their proxy the Polisario Front. As the work

    of several United Nations’ Secretaries-General and their Personal

    Envoys to the region have failed to reach a mutually-acceptable

    solution, the Kingdom of Morocco drew up the Initiative for negotiated

    autonomy for the Sahara to reach a lasting political solution to the


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