Stephen Hughes

Doyen of Rabat's foreign press corps
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The Independent Online

Stephen Hughes arrived in Casablanca in 1952, four years before Moroccan independence. While most newswire journalists change postings every few years, Hughes put down roots and became a dispassionate chronicler of events in the North African kingdom through the second half of the 20th century.

Already married to his French wife, Raymonde, he had been working as a Reuters reporter in Paris but had quarrelled with his bureau chief over expenses. While chatting with a chance acquaintance in a Paris café, he had heard of the job going on The Atlantic Courier, a daily published for US personnel at four new US airbases in Morocco.

He found a country where, as he described in his book Morocco under King Hassan (2001), there were many poor, "barefoot and in rags in both town and countryside". The French protectorate had brought infrastructure development in the inter-war years, but informal segregation between Moroccans and Europeans was still the norm. In 1953 he was walking his baby son in a pushchair outside the royal palace in the capital, Rabat, when he saw a frowning Sultan Mohammed ben Youssef being driven out of the palace in a black Citroën. The French authorities had ordered the monarch into exile, but he soon returned to popular acclaim, taking the title of "king" as Morocco recovered its independence.

In 1961 Hughes was given the task of opening a Reuters bureau in Morocco. It was from this vantage point that he would witness the rocky post-independence years, the two coup attempts against King Hassan II in 1971 and 1972, and the dark years of repression which lasted into the early 1990s. In later years, asked by locals about his affection for the country, Hughes would quip that he was attached not so much to "Morocco" as to the long-suffering Moroccans.

He was no campaigning or investigative journalist. He saw his role as being to encapsulate events as objectively as possible within the stylised syntax of the newswire dispatch. The briefest news item making it on to the Reuters wire - recording an arrest, a prohibited demonstration, or a newspaper seized at the printers - was keenly appreciated by Moroccans on the sharp end of King Hassan's rule.

Rumours of the killing by the security services of hundreds of Moroccan and Western Saharan political prisoners, and of clandestine torture centres in Rabat suburbs, were only fully substantiated in survivors' accounts published after the king's death in 1999. If at the time the worst that could happen to a European or North American correspondent was to be deported, a newswire reporter expelled from the country was reckoned to be of little use to anyone. On the issue of the disputed Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara Hughes never strayed over the regime's invisible ''red lines'' that cordoned off this story, nor did he ever visit Algeria.

He was not by inclination a company man. Opting not to have the status of a Reuters staffer, he continued with his freelance journalism. From his early years in Morocco, he also contributed to Associated Press newswire, The New York Times, the Financial Times and BBC radio. The challenge was to retain an outsider's objectivity - avoiding any temptation to ''go native'' in the salon politics of Rabat - while at the same time having access to the kind of information that never appeared in press releases.

Supping with a long spoon, he cultivated contacts with circles around the royal palace and the military, just as with the idealistic students who called round at his office to drop off their Marxist tracts. Sometimes it paid off with scoops. Although his own political sympathies tended towards the conservative, callers at his flat opposite Rabat's main train station included Patrice Lumumba and the charismatic Moroccan socialist leader Mehdi Ben Barka - who mysteriously disappeared off a Paris street in 1965.

After retirement in 1994, Hughes relished his role as doyen of Rabat's foreign press corps. It was almost obligatory for newly arrived correspondents to call round at his flat, and his anecdotes were an important aid in deciphering Moroccan political culture.

Born in 1924 to a Welsh-Irish family living near Liverpool, Steve Hughes was the son of a merchant seaman from a long line of sailors. He lost his mother as a teenager, in a German bombing raid over the Liverpool area. In 1942 he joined the RAF Coastal Command, becoming an RAF pilot the following year. A tragedy of his later years was the loss of his only son, Gregory, who drowned aged 38 while scuba-diving off the Virgin Islands and whose body was never recovered.

An enthusiastic fly-fisher, Hughes was particularly proud of having recounted tales of trout-fishing in the Atlas Mountains and elsewhere in Tight Lines and Dragonflies (1972). A lasting link to the overcast home country he visited infrequently was his subscription to Private Eye. He would regularly pass on a pile of read copies to the British embassy for distribution among the select number of UK nationals held in Moroccan prisons on drug offences.

Eileen Byrne