Moroccan government and critics vie for online audiences

AP News
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Posted: Dec 10, 2015 3:10 AM
Moroccan government and critics vie for online audiences

CASABLANCA, Morocco (AP) — The newest entrant to Morocco's media scene has already reported on a disgraced former foreign minister and a scandal about blackmailing the king. The investigative website Le Desk is the latest example of the accelerating migration of Moroccan journalism away from heavily restricted print and broadcast outlets toward the less-regulated online media scene.

The shift started with government critics whose print publications were shut down and who went online instead to express their views. But the powerful royal palace has also gotten in on the game, with a news site of its own attracting readers with a ready supply of scoops.

And Moroccan authorities, who prize the country's reputation as a model for stability in the region, are eyeing ways to better control the sector, which has become an increasingly spirited battleground of ideas.

In Le Desk's newsroom in Casablanca, a group of journalists huddles around a computer screen, examining the beta version of the site. The modern style of the offices, complete with iMacs and white desks, finds expression in the website's sleek design.

Discussions between journalists span from infographics to the latest gossip in Morocco's political scene.

It's a risky time to launch an outspoken website. In recent months, historian and journalist Maati Monjib was barred from leaving the country and faces charges of "undermining national security" in what rights groups argue is an attempt to undermine freedom of expression. Monjib faces charges along with six other activists and journalists.

"Le Desk stems from an era during which the new press broke taboos," said journalist Ali Amar. "Between then and now, authorities have battled against independent press."

Amar's own background is indicative of the shift in the media in Morocco and in several countries touched by the Arab Spring uprisings, which shook up political structures and saw a rise of dissenting voices online.

He led publication of the respected weekly Le Journal, once the hallmark of critical journalism in Morocco. It published interviews with the leader of the Polisario movement fighting for independence for the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, and reported on the alleged role of then-Prime Minister Abderrahmane Youssoufi in an attempt to assassinate King Hassan II.

The magazine was shut down in 2010 under the burden of repeated fines and a state-inspired advertising boycott.

A few months later, a new independent publication emerged, the bilingual Lakome, but this one was online and had less overhead, making it less vulnerable to advertising boycotts.

Many ex-staffers of Le Journal were involved, including its co-founder, Aboubakr Jamaï, who ran it together with Ali Anouzla.

"They managed to set a margin of freedom of expression in Morocco that was quite substantial," explained Bouziane Zaid, assistant professor of communications at Al Akhawayn University. "Lakome led the way."

In September 2013, however, Anouzla was arrested under an anti-terrorism law for writing about and including a link to an anti-Moroccan al-Qaida video. After his arrest, Lakome's websites were shut down in Morocco.

Meanwhile, the number of other online news sites was exploding, and not all of them following the critical line taken by Lakome. Le360.ma, established in 2013, has a nationalistic editorial line and one of the king's close associates is believed to be its owner.

It has made a name for itself with scoops that suggest access to high levels of the administration and is also known for scathing attacks on prominent activists.

Youssef Jajili, Le360.ma director of publication, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

With the rapid growth of competing online media have come efforts to control it. A new draft press code includes a more stringent process of accreditation for online media. According to Zaid, online journalists will have to get accredited like their print counterparts, and while the new code will eliminate jail sentences, there will be more fines for violations.

Audiovisual material will also have to be authorized through state-affiliated agencies, which would entail an authorization process that will have to be renewed once a year.

While many countries require official accreditation for online and other journalists, critics of the government fear Moroccan authorities will use the new rules to silence independent voices.

"The draft press code is meant to cripple online media," Zaid said. "Instead of putting people in prison, they are putting prisons within people."

Still, the battle is not over. Lakome was reborn in early September under Anouzla. The website continues to publish critical op-eds, though articles aiming direct criticism of the monarchy have yet to be seen.

And it has now been joined by Le Desk, promising even more hard-hitting investigative journalism, though some criticized a profile of a phosphate magnate as too rosy.

"We are taking a risk," explained managing director Fatima-Zahra Lqadiri. "But we wouldn't be taking such a risk if we truly didn't believe in this project."