Abderrahim Chalfaouat, a Ph.D. candidate in Advertising and Communications at Hassan II University, discusses the incentives for whistleblowers observing Moroccan diplomatic strategy, weighing the risks and benefits to monitoring the treatment sovereign data.
With the growing digitalization of documents and communications, particularly in foreign policies and international relations, mass data concentration has facilitated access to public information when some insider manages to blow the whistle. True, data storage and concentration undergo strict protection measures as part of a given state’s virtual sovereignty and territoriality. Protection becomes even stricter when related to sovereign data, the revealing of which may tarnish countries’ reputations or expose secret big data to foreign opponents. Yet, the whistleblowing potential includes revealing official mismanagement or policy-making paradoxes to the public eye, despite the risk it may entail for the whistleblower when protection laws are lacking.
The sovereignty that states bestow upon data becomes a double-edged sword when classified documents are leaked. The documents’ secrecy and sensitivity become an exposition of illegal agendas, dishonest meetings, corrupt relations, and official wrongdoing or power abuse, when perceived from advocacy perspective. For the public opinion, whistleblowing serves “in protecting the public interest and in defending human rights,” as John Devitt, the Chief Executive Officer of the Irish chapter of Transparency International puts it.
In Moroccan politics, different international classified data leaks have uncovered vibrant and hyperactive, though not necessarily effective, diplomacy strategies. In the 2010 U.S. diplomatic cable leaks known as ‘Cablegate,’ Moroccan political affairs were highlighted, primarily Morocco’s relations with the U.S. in regards to economic changes including democratization oscillation, the Sahara affair, the war on terrorism, and Morocco’s involvement in Middle East North African (MENA) issues.
These 2010 revelations did not create much political debate or social unrest for numerous reasons, including the international context of the leaks. The leaked information was generally international, wide and diverse. Possibly, graver diplomatic complexities in other countries prevented the expected effect in Morocco. Secondly, political debate in Morocco at the time focused on the so-called ‘monopoly project’ in preparation for the 2012 parliament elections. In the few years before the Arab Spring, Moroccan politicians were busy discussing and attempting to understand the aims behind the newly-founded monarchy-leaning Party for Authenticity and Modernity (PAM). The PAM was established to curb the rise of Islamists to power, trying to replicate the Tunisian model of drying the land for political diversity in the 2012 elections. Thus, leaking data on hidden aspects of the Moroccan American relations could not eclipse the tensity of such a local concern. Finally, social media in pre-Arab Spring Morocco were primarily entertainment-oriented. Spreading classified documents on such platforms did not attract much attention.
The Coleman Leaks
In its strategic communication, Morocco has promoted an image of being an exception in the region. Whenever a political wave overwhelmed the region, Morocco would adapt rather than adopt it unmodified. In the post-Snowden era, a rapidly digitizing Morocco faced a classified document leak in September 2014 when the email of Ms. Mbarka Bouaida, delegate minister for foreign affairs and cooperation, was allegedly hacked. Morocco stopped being an exception when a hacker, using a fake Twitter account under the name of Welsh football manager Chris Coleman, started sharing classified documents on Morocco’s foreign policy.
Given the issues highlighted in the shared documents, either the Algerian state or a Polisario supporter was the potential culprit of the leaks. With the leaks, Morocco lost some control over data sovereignty and the exposed information tapped personal information such as an email from the Moroccan Minister of Foreign Affairs asking the French Minister of Foreign Affairs to find a job for his daughter. More importantly, the 6 GB of sovereign data pinpointed military and diplomatic intelligence activities with U.S. lobbies and UN officials.
A Facebook account began leaking this information, but the Moroccan government seemingly blocked that account shortly after the leaks began. Since October 2014, the “Chris Coleman” Twitter account restarted the whistleblowing. The account, which is now suspended, shared data and news primarily on the Sahara affair and the Moroccan-Algerian geopolitical dispute over gaining international trust to lead the region. Unsurprisingly, the leaks occurred after AFP spotlighted a 2007 investigative report drafted by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) on EU humanitarian assistance to Polisario-controlled refugee camps in Southern Algeria. In a sense, internet foreign policy intersects with real-world foreign policy via whistleblowing exchanged attacks.
The leaks focus on Moroccan-American relations, as Morocco was trying to protect its interests via US lobbies, politicians and UN officials. The contact zones, whereby Morocco needs to approach the cartel of international stakeholders, relate mainly to Moroccan-Sahara affairs, the tense relations between Morocco and Algeria, internal democratization process, the war on terrorism, and Morocco’s involvement in Arab issues.
A key issue revealed in the leaks was the Morocco-U.S. disagreement over the inclusion of human rights abuses in the extension of the MINURSO mandate. In 2014, the U.S. led international efforts for the extension of the mandate. The leaks disclose that the disagreement reached its climax during the Moroccan King’s visit to the White House. A deal was reached in the Washington, D.C. meeting. The disclosed information exemplified the role of international actors in the dynamics of Moroccan politics and the support Moroccan officials receive in internal affairs.
Another issue uncovered was Morocco’s financing of U.S. politicians. Foremost are the Morocco-supporting group of Congressmen. Moreover, it was revealed that Morocco offered at least one million (USD) to presidential candidate Hillary R. Clinton as sponsorship for her Marrakesh Clinton Global Initiative Meeting. The financial aid to the Clinton Foundation created social uproar and led the Foundation to change their foreign donations policy. Clinton’s campaign also failed to list Morocco as a registered lobbyist contributing to her campaign.
Despite this spotlight on Moroccan policy, the Coleman Scandal did not attract much public attention in Morocco, possibly because the whistleblower chose a Twitter rather than a Facebook account. The Moroccan Facebook community is among the most active in the Arab World. According to 2014 statistics, more than seven million Moroccans are on Facebook, ranking fourth in Africa for Facebook subscribers. The leaks also likely did not receive much public consideration due to language barriers, as the leaked documents are mainly in French. Another potential hindrance is that the leaks did not include issues related to security or immorality—key issues of interest amongst the Moroccan population that generally gain considerable public attention on social media.
Moving Forward: Protecting Whistleblowers
The democratizing effect of revealing official wrongdoings or reporting documented corruption or despotism necessitates two law amendments. The first is to guarantee whistlebowers legal protection and safety for their contribution to transparency, access to serious information, and information democratization.
Though “Chris Coleman” was neither found nor prosecuted, previous cases send alarming signs. In 2007, Mounir Agueznay, or Targuist Sniper, from the Targuist town in the North of Morocco, uploaded four videos of policemen receiving bribes from car drivers. The disclosure also encouraged further revelations related to corruption and bribery cases. Agueznay remained anonymous until February 2013, but was targeted by police harassment due to lack of whistleblower protection. Agueznay’s brother was also sentenced to two years imprisonment—allegedly for selling drugs—and Agueznay was forced to leave Morocco in May 2013 to avoid further retaliation. Today, quite surprisingly, he has joined the PAM that is known for defending drug-dealers in the North of Morocco, possibly in search for political protection.
Ali Anouzla, director of the Lakome.com news site was the first to expose the royal amnesty that the Spanish paedophile had received. When the heat of the scandal abated, Anouzla was sued under the terrorism code for encouraging terrorism, when his news site quoted a hyperlink to an AQIM video. The national and international condemnation of his arrest led to his release after spending only a few weeks in custody.
The second amendment necessitated by the official wrongdoings of this kind is to treat whistleblowing as a public right, similar to the right to access information or freedom of speech. When the public is deprived of the right to whistleblowing, decision makers may be more prone to continue corruption or nonchalance towards the public interest.
Whistleblowing and data collection face considerable ethical challenges, including data sensitivity and the blurred lines between security and transparency in classified documents. What draws the boundary between encouraging transparency and jeopardizing public security? In countries infamous for neglecting individual rights or exploiting private information, the amount of data stored about activists, for instance, may be detrimental to individuals. In this sense, whistleblowing could lead to leaking personal information such as private photos, even if the whistleblower did not nefariously seek to reveal such data. Another challenge is the potential dilemma between encouraging access to information and illegal breaches of security. In the case of the Coleman leaks, the revealed information has provided journalists and human rights activists with information they can build on to advocate for less squandering of public funds.
Additionally, leaks that reveal secret meetings usually lead to public uproar when covered by the media. The revelation will most likely lead officials to avoid the meetings in the future, yet selective whistleblowing and using the hacked information to harm state interests casts doubts of whether it is the work of well-intentioned whistlebowers or spy agencies from opposing states in a tense geopolitical region.
For Morocco, whistlebowers will continue to surface, given the corruption and despotism the country has suffered from for decades. Without including whistleblower protection in the forthcoming right to information act, and without incorporating whistleblowing in the advocacy efforts to mitigate corruption and despotism, it is not simply freedom of speech that will be curbed. Most importantly, it is Morocco that will miss the potential of bringing more democratization into the public sphere.
About the Author
Abderrahim Chalfaouat is a Ph.D. candidate at the department of Advertising and Communication, Hassan II University of Casablanca. He works at the intersections between television drama, cultural policy and democratization in Morocco. He received an MA in Moroccan American Studies in 2011 and a BA in English linguistics in 2000 from Hassan II University. Abderrahim’s research interests include media and society, cultural policy, MENA politics, democratization and human rights.
- Chalfaouat, A. Forthcoming. The Internet under the Moroccan Spring: from entertainment to activism. In Coban, Baris (ed.) Forthcoming. Social Media R/evolution. Istanbul.
 PhD Candidate at Hassan II University of Casablanca, Morocco. Researcher in Media, Cultural Policy and MENA Affairs. Frequent writer and commentator on Moroccan and Arab issues. Alumnus of AnOx 2015.
 Algeria-supported Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro. For Morocco, the Polisario is a separatist group that results from the Cold War of the 1970s. The Polisario seeks independence of the Western Sahara from the Moroccan rule while Morocco suggests an autonomy plan for the region.
 Expectations are high that this number will reach ten million with the introduction of 4G facilities to the country.