Early Days for Digital Media in Morocco
By Eleanor Kelly & Bouziane Zaid
Before the 1990s, the culture of media in Morocco was authoritarian, administrative, and partisan. This changed during the political liberalization and democratization that marked the second half of the 1990s. One of the authors of the Mapping Digital Media: Morocco report discusses developments in the digital media sector in Morocco, the significance of 105 percent mobile phone penetration, and why Morocco’s Arab Spring is not over yet.
Can you tell us about digital media in Morocco at the moment?
In Morocco, the digital switchover hasn’t happened yet, but we do have partial digitization.
Internet services provide the only digital interactive platform in Moroccan media space. The number of internet users grew by an estimated 60 percent from 2005 to 2010. The internet is now the communication platform preferred by Moroccan youth.
The question now is what we do with digitization to ensure there is transparency and a plurality of voices; the new licenses available because of digitization must be fairly and widely distributed. The other part of the digital media picture in Morocco is the internet and mobile phones. We now have social media news portals online, and the Internet has opened up opportunities for news dissemination. Online news portals are very popular. Morocco sells about 300,000 newspapers a day; however one news website can generate 500,000 visits in a day.
Mobile phones are about convergence—users check their email, read news, and chat on Facebook all at the same time. For Morocco this hasn’t happened yet on mobile phones. Moroccan youth are using social media mainly for entertainment rather than news and information. Activists also use it to educate, organize, and mobilize as was the case of the 20 February movement. There are 3 million Facebook users in Morocco. The appetite for news is significant and most people get their news from broadcasting. Print media is dominated by political parties and their daily circulation is very small compared to independent print media. Online news portals are more independent than traditional media, they are updated regularly and there is no limit to the amount of information the portals can include.
What are the challenges working with online news?
The main challenges are around ethics and professionalism. Increasingly people recognize they must read more than one source online.
The Mapping Digital Media: Morocco research found that the two main television stations in Morocco are the main source of information for the majority of the market there. The rate of illiteracy in Morocco is 37 percent. One of the main principles of public service is the idea of universality—the idea that content must be accessible. However, issues arose around the use of Arabic and French on public channels. Moroccans speak Darija, a dialect of Arabic, rather than classical Arabic which the public service channels broadcast.
We also found that more of the people participating in public service television are from Casablanca or Rabat which led to feelings of marginalization among those not from these cities. Regions other than the major cities need to be featured in public service television. Morocco is a very diverse society, for public service television to work, regionalization is a solution. We called, when we launched the report in October 2012, on the broadcast regulator in the country, namely the High Commission for Audiovisual Communication (HACA) to adopt regulations that would lead to growth of regional coverage on the public service channels Al Oula and 2M.
Did the Mapping Digital Media research reveal anything expected?
The power of mobile phones was an unexpected finding.
There is 105 percent mobile phone penetration in Morocco, which means more phones than people. Phones can help with illiteracy. Media companies can make phones carriers of news and entertainment. Particularly for women in rural areas this is really important. Men hang out in public spaces or go to coffee shops to gather news; women in rural areas don’t have the same access to these places. The mosque is one of the few public spaces women can go to.
The issues around media laws, regulations, and policies were less surprising. We knew from the beginning that the standards in these areas were inadequate. The monarchy, Western Sahara, and Islam are three areas where no divergence is allowed in the media. You cannot challenge them; there are provisions in the law where you can be put in jail for doing so.
What would you like to see happen?
The new constitution which came out in July 2011 had recommendations on access to information. The old constitution from 1996 had no provision on this, but the new one does.
The new constitution also gives an important role to civil society, which is a significant development. At the launch of the Mapping Digital Media Report on October 2, 2012, we presented the findings to journalists and local partners. The recommendations we aim to work on in the comings months include: legal reform (or more precisely amendment of the Press Code and the Audiovisual Law), changes in the way members of the HACA are appointed to ensure its independence, adoption of regulation aimed at increasing the regional content on public service media, improvement in the manner the government communicates publicly, measures to improve the working conditions for journalists and boost professionalism in news reporting, provisions to make e-journalists a recognized profession, and creation of a media research center, which would be a major achievement in a country where information about media is almost inexistent.
The Arab Spring was more muted in Morocco—do you agree? What role did digital media play or not play in this?
There were protests in Morocco, inspired by other activity in the region and organized by the 20 February Youth Movement, a group mainly made up of students. They brought up issues of accountability and responsibility, asking that the King stay away from politics. The King responded 20 days after the first march and proposed a new constitution and other constitutional reforms. It was a smart response. Not all reforms however appeared in the constitution. From my point of view, we’re in waiting mode at the moment. Morocco’s Arab Spring is not over yet.
Eleanor Kelly is the regional head of communications for the Open Society Foundations.
Bouziane Zaid is the undergraduate studies coordinator in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Al Akhawayn University in Ifane.