Commentators are quick to cite a “Moroccan exception” to the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, noting the absence of upheaval. But Morocco is certainly not an exception when it comes to the renewed centrality of street politics. After all, in less than three weeks after the February 20 Movement’s first protest, King Mohammad VI felt pressured enough to announce the drafting of a new constitution. Continued dissent is also not exclusive to February 20; the banned Justice and Charity (al-Adl wal-Ihsan) movement, the leftist Unified Socialist Party, student unions, and pockets of protesters scattered throughout the country continue to organize demonstrations. And over the past year Moroccans have rallied. They rallied around the detainment of Moroccan dissident rapper al-Haqed, who was sentenced last Friday for a year in prison over his anti-government lyrics; they rallied around the suicide of Amina Filali, a young girl who was forced to marry her rapist due to the constraints of family and marriage laws; they rallied with solidarity around the unemployed graduates who set themselves on fire in protest against economic conditions. 

But so far, these protests have been confined to the local level. The regime has been able to thwart nation-wide mobilization and effectively quarantine popular dissent, in large part due to its media embargo.  

Despite promises of reform, the regime has not yet amended the repressive provisions in the press and penal code that criminalize critical speech. The new constitution introduces two articles (Articles 28 and 165) relating to “freedom of the press” (there was no mention of press at all in the former constitution—only a general reference to “freedom of expression”). Article 28 states: “freedom of the press is guaranteed and cannot be restricted by any form of censorship," but adds that the press laws “set the rules of [press] organization and the control of public means over communication.” The press code (and specifically Article 41) still provides prison terms of between three and five years for speech that “undermines the Islamic religion, the monarchy, or [Morocco’s] territorial integrity,” or that is offensive toward “His Majesty the King, and the royal princes and princesses.”   

Even more worryingly, last year the government tried a journalist under the criminal code rather than press code while it simultaneously announced its planned reforms. Rachid Nini, the editor of the Moroccan daily Al-Massae, was prosecuted for attacking state institutions, public figures and the “security and integrity of the nation and citizens” under articles 263, 264 and 266 of the criminal code after publishing stories about Moroccan intelligence chief Abldellatif Hammouchi. He was imprisoned for a year on April 28, 2011. Reporters Without Borders even cites this case as the main reason for Morocco’s three-spot drop on the most recent Press Freedom Index from 135 to 138 (of 179 countries). 

Like their counterparts across the region, Moroccan pro-democracy activists have attempted to bypass the costs and risks of formal paper publication by developing a more active New Media presence—and they have been quite successful. In 2008, the Moroccan blogosphere was comprised of 30,000 blogs—about five times more than the more populated Algeria. With about 51% of the Moroccan population online, blogs and citizen media reach a sizeable audience, creating new methods of self-expression and access to information that would have otherwise gone unreported by government press. Citizen media powerhouse, Mamfakinch (“No Concessions”), began as a combined effort between professionals, writers, bloggers, and activists to cover the protests of the February 20 Movement. Mamfakinch is now the go-to source for information on anti-regime movements, and their multilingual platform reaches a global audience and is referenced on international news networks, such as Al Jazeera and France24.

But even with the increasing availability of the Internet, written media in Morocco faces a tough hurdle; the country’s 56% literacy rate is well below the MENA average of 75%. This renders access to audiovisual media particularly crucial in the Moroccan context—and the government is well aware. Although it claims to have “liberalized” this sector by establishing the High Authority of Audiovisual Communication (HACA) in 2002 as an “independent administrative body in charge of regulating audiovisual communication,” this organization has not operated “independently.” The king appoints five of its nine members, the prime minister appoints two, and the presidents of the houses of parliament another two. HACA also granted most TV and radio licenses to government-owned stations and denied TV licenses to private investors citing “the deteriorating situation in the advertising.” The new constitution includes an Article on HACA (Article 165) but nothing suggests that it will become more autonomous. 

For now, state media remains the main source of information on standard television (without satellite), and the government monopolizes coverage: Qanat al Aoula (Channel 1) and 2M provide the daily news in Arabic, French, and Tamazight. News segments are scheduled only at certain times during the day, and the network tends to be highly selective (though a public event hosted or attended by King Mohammad VI is never missed). But as a result of the monopoly, many Moroccans (especially in rural areas where socioeconomic conditions are the direst) have little to no access to news about protests in other parts of the country. 

This may be one of the main reasons why protests have remained localized. In the early weeks of 2012, demonstrators in the north—especially in Taza—demanded economic reform; following the release of several Wikileaks cables disclosing the rampant corruption involved in various business deals, the royal family’s investments in the private sector (principally real estate and food products, such as milk, sugar, and bread) have stirred widespread negative reactions. Protests also took place in the Rif, a region to the north with some of the highest unemployment rates and lowest rate of investment. In both cases, police crackdown was brutal and arbitrary arrests were rampant. There was almost no coverage on state media, and the little that there was painted the protesters as secessionists.

Like other Arab regimes that have so far survived, the monarchy has increased its efforts to mold an image of its stability and progress abroad. Between June 2010 and June 2011, the government increased funding to the Moroccan American Center for Policy (MACP)—registered under the U.S. Department of Justice’s Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) as a lobby for the Moroccan government—from $499,962.50 to $770,049.73. MACP routinely spends on advertising and public relations and contacts mainstream international publications like The Washington Post, Forbes, PBS NewsHour, Foreign Policy, and The New York Times. Following the July 1st referendum all the way through the November 25th elections, it was commonplace to hear Moroccan-government sponsored radio advertisements on NPR. It is not clear how effective these campaigns are–or even if they are. But generally, Morocco’s events over the past year have been covered with optimism in the US. Prominent Washington Post bloggers praised the nature of Morocco’s reforms and response to protests. 

State-led media constraints on dissent have led to the rise of alternative outlets and sources of information—ones that rival existing outlets and publications—but we must look beyond the spin to realize that the opposition is still very much alive, and the media must keep it that way.

Samia Errazzouki is a Moroccan-American writer based in Washington, DC. She is co-editor of Jadaliyya's Maghreb Page.