RABAT - In Morocco, it’s not unusual for journalists who cover the protest movements to also be active participants in those very same protests. In fact, journalists are leaders of Morocco’s Arab Spring movement.
RABAT – In Morocco, it’s not unusual for journalists who cover the protest movements to also be active participants in those very same protests. In fact, journalists are leaders of Morocco’s Arab Spring movement.
Nizar Bennamate, is one of the primary leaders of the February 20th movement, Morocco’s equivalent of the Arab Spring. In addition, he is a member of the Moroccan Association of Human Rights, and the Liberty Movement for Individual Freedoms, two NGOs based in Morocco. Bennamate is also a journalist who has covered Moroccan protest movements for “Lakome,” an electronic newspaper.
The February 20th movement is a movement founded by young Moroccans on the social website Facebook. On February 20th, 2011, thousands of young Moroccans went out into the street, inspired by the revolutions of the so-called Arab spring in Tunisia and Egypt. The protesters demanded several changes in Morocco, notably the adoption of a new democratic constitution, ending corruption, and the establishment of a parliamentary monarchy.
Subsequently, many organizations and human rights associations, public figures, and political and ideological streams joined the movement, to participate in its protests, which demanded also the liberalization of media and a free press.
In Morocco, the press is not free. Based on its 2013 report, Reporters Without Borders ranked Morocco 136th in press freedom. Morocco dropped in press freedom rankings, according to Reporters Without Borders, due to the arrest and imprisonment of several journalists, such as Ali Anouzla, Rachid Nini, the closure of several press outlets, and prosecutions for newspapers such as Al Massaa, TelQuel, Al Michaal, Nichane, Akhbar al Youm, and al Jarida al Oula.
Under these circumstances, the journalist-activist and the primary leader of the February 20th movement Hamza Mahfoud, 27, believes that it is not enough to be just a journalist in a country such as Morocco. Mahfoud says that since “there is not a totally free press or enough freedom of speech there is no other option for the Moroccan journalist but uniting with the people who are protesting out in the streets.”
The journalist Mahfoud is not just an average participant in movement demonstrations. In most protests, he stands on a car at the forefront of the march and with a megaphone yells out his slogans. In fact, Mahfoud writes most of the slogans chanted by the demonstrators, such as the one that says “Wa lmakhzen yatlaa Barra (Makhzen go away).”
Mahfoud is not the only journalist involved in politics in Morocco. Many of the other leaders of the February 20th movement work simultaneously as journalists and activists. Moreover, they were the ones who covered the protests organized by the movement.
“The journalist is dead in this country,” that is how Omar Radi, 27, describes the Moroccan journalist in an interview with the journalist Julien Merlaud published via the Daily Motion website on August 7, 2012. Radi works as a journalist and is a leader in the February 20th movement.
In the Daily Motion interview, when he was asked about the press reality in Morocco, Radi said: ‘’the free and independent press was domesticated by stifling it economically, by cutting advertising for critical newspapers, imprisoning journalists, which warns other newspapers or journalists who think of crossing the red lines… .”
Another journalist-activist is Montassir Sakhi, 25. He helped establish the nucleus of February 20th movement in several Moroccan cities; in particular Rabat, Sale and Zagora. Sakhi says that “in Morocco the media serves the interests of a specific economic class, which is the same class that governs politics and also blocks the media from serving the interest of progress and change.” He says this class tries also to prevent media from playing the role of increasing community awareness, freeing Moroccans from traditional thinking and illiteracy. He adds that “this class does not want the media to promote values of evolution and modernity.”
“During the movement, we did not expect that we will encourage young journalists to speak out and demand change; especially since some of them were working for government-controlled media outlets, including the Maghreb Arab Press Agency and the National Company of Radio and Television ‘’ says Sakhi.
“We organized in these two institutions groups of freedom fighters, who did vigils to demand better staff social status, freedom from the control, from serving prevailing ideology, and we denounced all prevailing control ‘’ adds Sakhi.
Based on the foregoing the question that comes to mind is: Without freedom of the press, why would anyone want to be a journalist in Morocco? Amina Boughalbi, 23, is a journalist and one of the main female leaders of the February 20th movement. She always attends the protests of the movement and can be seen at the front of the crowd chanting loudly. Quoted in the ‘’Al Masaa‘’ daily newspaper, Boughalbi said that she chose journalism as a job, because she believes that media can change people and the way they think and can also influence public opinion.
Boughalbi started her activity in the February 20 Movement through involvement in the movement’s “information committee.” She was assigned to communicate with the national and foreign press. This committee was also in charge of distributing leaflets to the citizens of Rabat.
Sakhi believes young people need to understand the Moroccan reality and take the future into their hands, denouncing the nature of the Moroccan institutions and demanding civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.
In the same context, the jounalist-activist Mahfoud believes that journalism can allow him to talk and tell others what is happening in the country, especially through the internet; which is not controlled strongly by the state; unlike the other media outlets. Mahfoud says journalists see the country’s problems directly and are “more aware of the country’s problems. Therefore they are more attached to the real state of the country.’’
Ouidade Melhaf, 24, is another journalist who both participates in February 20th activities and also covers them, updating the February 20th movement news on her Face book page. Ouidade says in interview with ‘’ Al massaa ‘’ daily newspaper, that she believes in the necessity of change, especially freedom of expression which is why she participates in demonstrations that condemn the stifling of the press.
What drives Moroccan journalists to turn into activists?
Many say it’s in order to bring more democracy, especially a free press.
“I don’t think being a journalist here is enough,” says Bennamate. “As journalists we can organize protests to demand freedom of speech and expression, but becoming activists can give us more power to speak out and demand strongly these rights.”
Mahfoud believes that it is possible to be part of the events and write objectively about them at the same time. But other Moroccan journalists reject the idea that journalists can avoid bias.
“There is no neutrality!” says journalist Montassir Sakhi. “I even refuse what Max Weber calls axiological neutrality. Is there in the entire world a neutral press? I think they teach us neutrality in Morocco just to put red lines in front of the journalists.”
“Neutrality that the state wants is reproducing the same prevailing ideology as Pierre Bourdieu said and Karl Marx before him. Luckily, we still have several journalists-activists who believe in the values of freedom and social justice,” he adds.
Bennamate shares this opinion, and has no problem with being a journalist and a political activist at the same time.
“In Morocco lots of journalists are political activists.” Says Bennamate. ‘’ Even if you are a journalist-activist, you ought to defend the ideological line of the media outlet you are working for.”
Moroccan journalists Have not, however, gotten what they want by turning to activism.
“No, we have not accomplished what we wanted to accomplish. Anytime you have something you must go to another step” says Bennamate, “What is next is democracy, the goal will remain the same, democracy is the only solution. I would like to see the whole country become a democracy.”
His colleague Sakhi sees that the protest movements have succeeded in creating what he calls “liberal public space,” adding that he thinks Moroccans are now more aware of the problems facing the country, and they have started discussing its policies.
“But the debate needs to be more based on the values of the mind not on whims and trends,” Sakhi added.
“There is a significant delay in the establishment of policy tools such as strong parties and trade unions whose role is to concentrate on building community projects and achieve the ambition of social movements and Moroccan human rights activists. At the media level, the reality will remain as it is now, unless a new political change comes about and makes the poor and middle classes the priority of state and society.”
These Moroccan journalists consider that being a journalist and activist at the same time does not represent a violation of neutrality. While some American journalists who cover politics go so far as to say they do not vote in order to preserve the neutrality of their reporting and some American media outlets fire journalists who work as activists so as to respect journalism ethics, many Moroccan journalists believe that is impossible to adhere to strict journalism ethics and standards in a country such as Morocco. These Moroccan journalists believe that there is no other option but activism, which is the only way to a free press in a country which harasses and prosecutes journalists in the name of “state security” or “red lines.”
As long as the public media lacks pluralism, objectivity, and democracy, these journalist-activists say they will protest for a lifting of all legal barriers that hinder Moroccan journalists. They are also asking for the adoption of a new law that would protect journalists, and ensure their right to access information, exercise freedom of speech, and renounce using the judiciary to settle political scores with some media outlets. Only then, say these Moroccan journalists, will they take off their activist hats, and settle for just journalism.
Maddy Crowell contributed reporting
Photo rights : Imane Moustakir
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