Ahmed Ettanji was born in 1988 in Al-Aaiun and is currently the president of Équipe Média, a media that works to break the Moroccan information blockade and that, since its creation in 2009, has had to face threats, assaults, arbitrary arrests and confiscations of the journalists who make up the team. Équipe Média, currently made up of 25 professionals and some collaborators, sends information about what is happening in the occupied territory and functions as a source for different international media. Some of its journalists write for alternative media on the peninsula. The Western Sahara, closed to foreign journalists and international organizations, has become an information desert: from there, neither information leaves nor enters. What happens there, stays there.
Brief chronology of more than 40 years of occupation
To talk about the history of the Western Sahara, about 266,000 square kilometers located in North Africa, at the western end of the Sahara desert and on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, is to talk about an occupation that has started more than 40 years ago In 1970, Western Sahara was the 53rd province of the Spanish state, but the Sahrawi people already aspired to self-determination. In this context, in 1973, in the Mauritanian town of Zuérate, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Sakia-el-Hamra and Río de Oro, currently known as the Polisario Front, was created and, in 1975, Spain committed to carry out a self-determination referendum so that the Sahrawi population could decide its future. It was during these dates that Morocco began to claim the territory and began to lead the first military attacks in the area, which produced an exodus of refugees who found the doors of Algeria open. Since then, this country has been the main supporter of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR).
On November 6, 1975, the Green March began, which brought more than 300,000 Moroccan citizens to the Western Sahara to claim a territory that did not belong to them. In this context, eight days later, the Madrid Tripartite Agreement (known as the Madrid Agreements) was signed between Spain, Mauritania and Morocco: Spain ceded the Western Sahara to Morocco and Mauritania on the condition that a referendum on self-determination. In February 1976, Spain definitively withdrew from Western Sahara and that’s when the armed struggle began. Mauritania’s surrender came in 1979, when it stopped claiming Western Sahara as its home. Morocco, however, took the opportunity to unilaterally annex this part of the Western Sahara as well. The war between the Polisario Front and Morocco ended in 1991, when a ceasefire was signed and the UN established the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), with the commitment to hold a referendum of self-determination that never happened.
Nor did the peace that was expected arrive, and during the years that the ceasefire lasted, enforced disappearances, information blocking, repression and threats followed one another in Sahrawi territory. In 2007, Morocco proposed a model of autonomy by which “the autonomous region of the Sahara” would have competences in legal, administrative, judicial, economic, tax and socio-cultural ways; but it could not be governed in matters relating to religion, defense or foreign affairs, among others. In 2012, the dialogue between the Polisario Front and the Moroccan government broke down, and in 2020 there was an incursion by Moroccan troops into Guerguerat—the main border point connecting Western Sahara with Mauritania—and it ended the cease fire
During all this time of covert war between the Front Polisario and Morocco, Spain has been apparently neutral and has always been in favor of the promised self-determination referendum. However, the surprise would arrive in March 2022, when the PSOE government, unilaterally and without prior consultation in its parliamentary seat, positioned itself on the side of Morocco and began a new stage in bilateral relations with the neighboring country . In this way, he considered closed the diplomatic crisis that began in April 2021, when Spain hosted the leader of the Front Polisario, Brahim Gali, who was admitted and treated in Logronyo due to a serious medical condition caused by the coronavirus. In response to this fact, in May of the same year, Morocco opened its border crossing and allowed around 8,000 people to cross into Spanish territory. In this new stage of relations, the Spanish government recognizes the Moroccan autonomy plan for Western Sahara and claims that it is “the most serious, realistic and credible”.
Information blocking and media silence
The conflict in Western Sahara is a conflict forgotten in the Western media and only appears in the press when facts occur that cannot be hidden. Local journalism that tries to do alternative journalism outside the Moroccan officialdom is persecuted, harassed, flogged, slandered and defamed, and the foreigner, expelled. This has turned the Western Sahara into an informational black hole. That’s why Reporters Without Borders assures that “Journalism is one of the many victims of this conflict abandoned by the media spotlight”. In fact, the historical censorship of the Moroccan regime to hide what is happening in the Sahara, but also in the Rif o atthe borders, has meant that Morocco is currently ranked 135 out of 180 countries and territories analyzed by RSF’s World Press Freedom Ranking.
What is the origin of Équipe Média?
In 2005, a group of young Sahrawis realized the importance of disseminating information about what was happening in our territory. We live in a closed area, which is inaccessible to foreign media and international organizations. We have been experiencing daily repression for a long time and we thought of creating something, a sort of a tool to show this repression and be able to open a crack in the wall of silence that surrounds us. The objective was clear: to break the information blockade that Morocco is subjecting us to, to show the barbarities that are committed against the Sahrawi population and to make known the plundering of natural resources that is done with the complicity of multinational companies and European countries .
How do you work with international media?
We live in an area where information neither enters nor leaves. It is an information desert, as Reporters Without Borders says. Many media outlets take the information we produce and use it as a source. In addition, alternative media such as Gara, Arainfo, El Salto or Público have welcomed us with open arms.
How many journalists are part ofÉquipe Média?
Right now we have 25 people working there and we have some collaborators.
You have been arrested more than fifteen times. What is it like to be a journalist in Western Sahara?
To be a journalist in Western Sahara is to be a direct target of the Moroccan repression forces, because you are showing things that Morocco does not want the rest of the world to see. We are showing topics that are taboo for Moroccans. We suffer abuse, torture, arbitrary arrests, home invasions, direct threats to us and our families, and constant surveillance. We are not only forbidden to work, but also to have a normal life with family and friends. Get together in a coffee shop. We have become the essential enemy for the Moroccan occupier.
How have technologies and social networks contributed to the work of Équipe Média?
Social networks have allowed us to break Moroccan censorship. They have helped us publish the information we have and document and publicize what is happening. It is also true that they tried to deface our webpages. Censorship is not only in the streets, but also in the virtual world.
Have they caused you any security issues?
Yes, because on some occasions, the authorities have been able to find out the person behind the publication and have arrested him. That’s why we’ve been training in digital protection for years.
What is it like to grow up in occupied territory?
Since a very young age we notice the differences with Moroccan children. There is clear discrimination by teachers against Sahrawi students. We suffer more pressure and discrimination just for being Sahrawi, but also for having a refugee relative in the camps or for speaking Hasanian. Over time you wonder what you are doing wrong. They don’t tell you anything in the family for fear that you’ll say something outside the house, but even though you’re a child, you notice things.
When Moroccans listen to the radio, they do so with the windows open, with the volume turned up. This does not happen in Sahrawi homes. When Sahrawi families listen to the radio, they do so with the doors and windows closed, very low, so that no one can hear them. Over time you discover that this is fear, there are parents of missing friends, etc. You become aware and start being an activist very young, at 12 or 13 years old. And from this age you start to suffer arrests, torture. They chase you at school and on the street.
A ceasefire occurred in 2020 when Moroccan troops carried out an incursion into Guerguerat. How did you experience it?
I was woken up early, at seven. I remember my sister shouting “the war, the war”. She couldn’t believe it. In the afternoon, many Sahrawis took to the streets to applaud the Polisario’s return to armed struggle. This shows the desperation of the Sahrawi people: there is no other option left. We survived for years. After that, the Moroccan military came out in caravans in the streets, they had arrived from Morocco and dedicated themselves to intimidating the people. They entered houses, stole cellphones, arrested young people and terrorized the citizens. The first night, I remember hearing the steps of the military walking through the streets to frighten the population and prevent a possible Sahrawi uprising.
How’s the situation now?
Nothing has changed in Western Sahara. They continue to arrest people, the repression is continuous and they continue to put activists under house arrest. Violation of human rights is still a reality.
What do you think is the future of Western Sahara?
Personally, I have always been an optimist. Now, however, I see that the scenario has changed a lot due to a new world order, new alliances, geopolitical changes, etc. The war [d’Ucraïna] has changed everything, and we can see this in the Moroccan economy. Fire and war always shake the earth.
Have you noticed the effects of the war in Ukraine?
Yes, we have. When things happen there, we always notice an increase in repression. It also happens when Morocco has diplomatic problems: the weight always falls on us. We have also noticed the economic crisis generated by the war.
Recently, the Spanish government has made a change in its policy regarding Morocco and the Sahara. The supposed Spanish neutrality is lost and it aligns with the Moroccan postulates for the Western Sahara. How are you experiencing this political turn?
Spain is the administrative power and historically, morally and legally responsible for our territory. It is said in several texts of the United Nations. The Sahrawis who live in the Western Sahara are still under the supposed protection of the Spanish government. I say assumed because this protection does not exist. The position of legitimizing repression and occupation is not something new for us. Until now it had been done shyly, now it is done brazenly. They are violating international law and they are it under everyone’s eyes, [Respecte a la postura sobre el Sàhara Occidental] there was a consensus in civil society [espanyola] that has rejected this decision.