By Charles Kestenbaum
Rabat – The Moroccan American Network held its Third International Media Forum on April 20, 2018, on the 13th floor of the prestigious National Press Club in downtown Washington, D.C. The event focused on an especially current and very global theme widely referred to as “Fake News.”
The roundtable discussion event was well attended by a diverse audience of Moroccans and Americans and offered a broad range of insights through two speaker panels, one addressing fake news in the US context, and the other addressing it in the international arena.
The program was devised under the leadership of MAN President Mohamed El Hajjam, CEO of AV Actions Inc., and American lawyer, Elisabeth Myers who MC’d the forum and serves also an advisor to the group.
The first panel focused on the broader concepts of how fake news is defined today; how it has evolved from ancient roots in propaganda and disinformation; and how the new all-encompassing social media are redefining what fake news is and how much more impact it has on how the public sees events in particular, and the world in general.
The second panel narrowed its focus significantly to help the audience better apply these concepts to the media situation as it exists today in Morocco and the Middle East. As an outside observer who has both lived in Morocco and has an extensive background in Middle East media (MA in Mass Communications from American University in Cairo; 4 years at NBC News Beirut and the Cairo bureau), I was struck by how similar many of the concerns, issues and opportunities the panel identified as relevant to Morocco are to those in the U.S. The panelists noted the similarities and differences between Morocco as a constitutional monarchy versus the U.S. as a democratic republic.
One surprising highlight of the afternoon was the official presentation of the Moroccan flag to the National Press Club by Minister Delegate Mustapha El Khalfi, the Minister Delegate to the Head of Government in Morocco responsible for Relations with Parliament and Civil Society. Myron Belkind, an international journalist and a former President of the National Press Club, received the flag on behalf of the Club. He said that he was “thrilled” to have a program about “fake news” put on at the Club by the Moroccan American Network. “Fake news,” he said, “is a cancer on society and the only thing that could bring down a democracy.” He added that the Moroccan flag would from now on be “displayed proudly at the Club along with all the other flags of the world.”
Minister el Khalfi, who is also the official Spokesperson for the Moroccan government, gave a presentation focused on “fake news” in the context of the Sahara. He is also the author of a book entitled “Moroccan Sahara: Realities and Illusions of the Conflict.” He discussed the myths and mistruths about the Western Sahara and signed copies of his book.
All in all, I was struck by the up-to-date technical awareness of the Moroccans at the event. Unlike many of the Middle Eastern countries, Morocco emerged from this event as a real pioneer in the development and engagement of social media and news – both “real and fake.” Morocco is making strides in developing the tools necessary to investigate and combat fake news, according to Fadwa Kamal, an expert in digital research who is a fellow with Code for Africa. Just as Google and Microsoft have developed open source tools in the US to verify facts and sources, efforts in Morocco are beginning to develop such tools, said Kamal. She offered several recommendations to further this effort.
Moroccan lawyer Issam Ibramini highlighted the legal reforms that are being made in Morocco with respect to free speech and journalism.
Carol Van Dam, an American journalist and radio talk show host for Voice of America, emphasized the importance of better education in combatting fake, false, and misleading news. “Fake news is a cancer on the world,” she said. People need to be taught to exercise critical thinking and not believe everything they read on social media, she added.
The forum highlighted that the U.S. and Morocco can and should cooperate on both the governmental and private commercial levels to ensure that both countries’ citizens are free to engage in all aspects of social communications while also being protected on an individual and societal level from invasive, disruptive, and politically motivated purveyors of what is included today in the catch-all term “Fake News.” However, the solution lies not in censorship or limiting free speech, according to lawyer and law professor Elisabeth Myers, who is a senior editor and advisor for Morocco World News and moderated the first panel. Rather, she says, “we should focus on encouraging more and accurate speech, calling out and exposing distortions of the facts, and providing effective tools in the search for the truth.”
The Moroccan American Network is a network of individuals dedicated to creating opportunities for small business in the U.S. and Morocco, according to MAN President Mohammed El Hajjam. Focussing on three areas — small business, media, and cultural heritage, he says the Network “facilitates understanding and awareness through dialogue, forums, and events, and serves as a platform to educate U.S. media, the American public, and U.S. government officials.”
For example, the Moroccan American Network’s upcoming CEO Summit 3 on May 10th, also at the Press Club in Washington, D.C., will address “Shaping the Future of Africa: Challenges and Prospects.”
The Network’s executive team consists of American and Moroccan-American advocates and lobbyists, lawyers, journalists, media and PR professionals and filmmakers, and think tank experts with 100+ combined years of experience on Capitol Hill and in international lobbying, national and local media, law and diplomacy, think tanks, and cutting-edge technology. It sponsors delegation visits and exchange trips between the U.S. and Morocco and engages in partnerships, including memoranda of understanding, solidifying relationships among sister cities, universities, and think tanks.