When to Call It Quits
by Nejra Kravić, 2023 Journalism Fellow
Omar Radi walked into the Center for Cross Cultural Learning in Rabat, Morocco with a smile and an effervescence that never really left him, even when discussion turned serious. He spoke to a group of twelve study abroad students about his work as an investigative journalist, discussing the widespread land-grabbing efforts impacting tribal communities in Morocco. Radi previously worked for Le Desk, an independent news media website, and freelanced for various international publications, often investigating corruption and land rights issues. In February 2020, he was brought on board as a lecturer for a journalism study abroad program in Rabat, where we first met. The world shut down soon after. Not much later, Omar was arrested and imprisoned, and my program was suspended for good. I returned home with an unwavering uneasiness that never quite went away.
I left my life in a quintessentially post-Communist in Sarajevo, where embattled, labyrinthine history oozed out of the city’s every corner, for the suburban streets of a small town in Southern California. As I looked to put my theory-heavy academic studies to practical use, a program with a focus in journalistic fieldwork seemed ideal. I soon found myself basking in the midday sun, bumping into strangers in Rabat’s medina, practicing Moroccan Arabic, or Darija, with small business owners along the promenade, and learning about the craft from lectures of veteran reporters. Moved by their commitment to bringing critical issues to light, I imagined myself doing the same in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Omar Radi wore a light brown leather jacket. I remember thinking how much he reminded me of my uncle, roughly his age with the same boyish smile and a knack for lightening the mood. He drew a map of the Moroccan coast with a green whiteboard marker, carefully denoting each city and village along the coast. His latest project involved investigating lucrative expropriations, particularly of tribal lands, causing large-scale displacement and dispossession of the nation’s poorest, often agricultural, communities. The once communal lands were now becoming golf courses for the ultrawealthy, with prominent government officials acquiring land at a fraction of the market value. Investigating the link between business and state property acquisition was no easy task, especially as the North African nation ramped up its crackdown on press freedom. It was only a matter of time before Radi felt this pressure.
In December 2019, the police arrested Radi in Casablanca. He faced jail time for insulting via tweet a judge that he deemed unfair towards Moroccan activists. In March 2020 after intense international protests and media scrutiny, he was handed a suspended sentence and a fine. Our group wanted to accompany him to the hearing, but the program strongly discouraged any kind of direct involvement.
‘’Are you not afraid?’’ a classmate asked shyly, referring to the upcoming hearing.
I distinctly remember the question but not Radi’s answer. I trace my steps that day but can only think of his smile, which lingered before he answered. Radi’s cheerfulness only marginally dissipated. I did, however, see fear in the ever so slight shaking of his right hand, the sweat-soaked lock of hair on his forehead, and a newly present distance that suddenly formed between us.
In June 2020, Amnesty International reported that Radi’s cellphone was infected with Pegasus spyware, a software used by governments to spy on their citizens, often prominent human rights activists, journalists, and lawyers. It is a seamless piece of technology that easily harvests all one’s data, including text messages, photos, and calls, and can even directly film and record users. In July 2020, Omar Radi was charged with espionage. After a long and arduous legal process, he is currently serving a six-year prison sentence in isolation. He has been denied the right to write or pursue further studies.
While organizations such as Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, Human Rights Watch, and the Committee to Protect Journalists released statements in support of Radi, Moroccan media outlets rallied behind the government. This situation is likely the byproduct of an increasingly oppressive media landscape, where the last few independent media organizations have shut down due to financial challenges and judicial harassment. Subjects remain off limits for Moroccan reporters, particularly matters regarding Western Sahara and the monarchy. Most practice selfcensorship.
Despite the strained environment for local reporters, foreign reporters and correspondents remain in the country and face virtually no repercussions. Huddled in a rectangular one-time bedroom, now classroom at the Center for Cross Cultural Learning, located in a building in a beautiful Moroccan riad nestled in the back streets of Rabat’s medina, young journalists faced their first ethical challenge. Although some of us have already written about others’ communities and the difficulties this entailed, the fact that the only independent perspectives in a nation of 38 million people would have to come from a handful of foreign reporters seemed absurd.
When I reflect on this reality, I think about the great deal of reading I have done on the politics of the “other’s” representation in Western news media. Mass media has played an immense role in what Mohammed Hirchi calls the “framework of a binary oppositional dynamics where the Middle East is classified as an undesired space of barbarism and tyranny.’’1 Considering that most of our work catered to American media and audiences (never mind the restrictions that local reporters face), I became increasingly uncomfortable with the precarious position we found ourselves in. Still, if not us, then who else?
After almost three years of #FreeOmarRadi, countless opinion pieces, calls for actions, and reports by international organizations, Radi remains in prison. His colleagues have either faced a similar fate, were forced to flee, or have succumbed to the pressures. I go back to the FASPE newsroom exercise, in which our cohort simulated an editorial meeting as staff of the Munich Post on the day after Adolf Hitler became chancellor. As we debated our fate as one of the last critically minded papers in Nazi Germany, at first the idea of quitting seemed distant, but it slowly crept up as I grasped the severity of the conditions. I thought about what could have been going through Radi’s head during the critical moments before his first arrest. Was quitting even an option? Is the ability to quit a benefit, not a right? When is quitting a matter of self-preservation? And when is it irresponsible?
I have not yet found answers to these questions. I worry more often than I do not. I think regularly about the immense pain, suffering, and loss in the world and how I can overcome these feelings of hopelessness, inadequacy, and grief. I worry about my friends and family, my community, the world, and the climate. I do, however, now have a community of journalists and fellows that face similar challenges, a group of people that is adamant about recognizing and confronting their roles as professionals.
While I am still apprehensive, I do not feel isolated.
Nejra Kravić was a 2023 FASPE Journalism Fellow. She is a freelance journalist based in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
1. Hirchi, Nafiseh. Media Representations of the Middle East: A Critical Discourse Analysis of News Reporting in U.S. Newspapers. 2019. Interdisciplinary Journal of International Studies.