Online group leads cyberspace debate as opinion poll on Morocco's first decade under King Mohammed VI is suppressed by authorities.
Moroccan dissent alive on Twitter
RABAT // Last Saturday, in his home outside Paris, Hisham Almiraat, a doctor and political blogger, switched on his computer to find the internet buzzing with the latest news from his native Morocco: another government clampdown on independent media. "A little knot of people were discussing it on Twitter," said Mr Almiraat by telephone, referring to the seizure of two leading magazines. "At first we didn't know the reason, but we wanted to support free speech. So we kept talking, tweet-to-tweet."
Within hours, the "9% Moroccan" campaign coalesced from the digital ether. The name is a coy reference to an opinion poll on Morocco's first decade under King Mohammed VI, suppressed over the weekend by authorities despite registering 91 per cent approval. While opinions on the king differ, the 9% Moroccans are united in support of unfettered debate. Now the debate is going online, driven by an internet explosion in Morocco and powerful new web tools such as Facebook and the micro-blogging site Twitter.
The ruckus began last Saturday, when Morocco's interior ministry seized 100,000 copies of the leading independent magazines TelQuel and Nichane containing the opinion poll, conducted with the French newspaper Le Monde. Despite the large measure of popular support indicated for Mohammed VI, the government said the poll was illegal. "Even if the poll had shown 100 per cent favourable, the response would have been the same," said Khalid Naciri, the communications minister. "The monarchy is not the centre of a public debate."
Ahmed Benchemsi, the magazines' publisher, denied breaking the law and said that, while the media was free to debate party politics, "true power rests with king - this should be a major theme." On Tuesday, a court threw out a suit filed by Mr Benchemsi against the interior minister, Chakib Benmoussa. While press freedom in Morocco has expanded since Mohammed VI succeeded his authoritarian father, Hassan II, in 1999, limits remain. It is illegal to criticise the monarchy, Islam and Morocco's rule in Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony largely annexed in 1975 after Spain withdrew.
Authorities have cracked down on alleged infractions in recent years, hitting both print publications and online gadflies with fines or prison sentences. Sometimes, they have ultimately backtracked. "There have been extreme cases in which the decisions have been corrected," said Mr Naciri, the communications minister. "Criticism is an essential part of democracy." However, cyber-activists say that their campaigns have helped nudge the hand of the state.
"Many Moroccan activists are on the cutting edge of digital activism," said Amine, a co-founder of DigiActive, an online activism support group, who declined to give his surname. Last year, bloggers mounted a defence of Fouad Mourtada, jailed for creating a bogus Facebook profile of the king's brother, Prince Moulay Rachid. The campaign culminated in protests in front of eight Moroccan embassies. Mr Mourtada received a royal pardon after 43 days behind bars.
Similarly, the acquittal of the blogger Mohammed Erraji, jailed last year for disrespecting the king, came after fellow bloggers took to the internet in his defence. Internet use in Morocco has mushroomed in recent years an economic surge has brought foreign investment and raised standards of living. According to the online speed analysis tool speedtest.net, Morocco enjoys the fastest download speed in Africa.
Government figures state that nearly 500,000 of Morocco's 800,000 internet subscriptions are broadband, a high-speed technology that appeared in the country in 2003. "Since then the growth has been stupendous," said Karl Stanzick, director of MTDS, an internet service provider in Rabat, the capital. "Not just numbers, but the way people are absorbing it into their lives is phenomenal." Enter the blogosphere. Educated, often multilingual and sometimes expatriate, prominent bloggers such as "Larbi" and "Ibn Kafka" - both pseudonyms - are increasingly driving debate of sensitive topics largely avoided by mainstream media.
This was the group feverishly e-mailing and twittering one another last Saturday. Ibn Kafka set up a Facebook page, while the Paris-based blogger Anas Alaoui created a Twitter logo: a bird "tweeting" the message "Je suis un 9%" - "I am a 9%". "The emblem was a catalyser," said Mr Almiraat, who gave his online surname instead of his real one. "People understood the meaning immediately just from seeing it. After that, things snowballed."
For the first time, the cyber-activism of Mr Almiraat and his colleagues is powered by the lightning speed of Twitter, used to great effect in June by Iranian activists after disputed presidential elections. "It's extremely efficient when you want to communicate," Ibn Kafka said by telephone. He registered on Twitter last year but began "tweeting" only several weeks ago. "It was a positive surprise to see that it could be so instrumental in mobilising people."
By Sunday morning the campaign had broadened to include blog postings and a Facebook group, where a lively debate has developed. "We're not all among the nine per cent unsatisfied with the last 10 years," said Mr Almiraat. But the campaign "has allowed people with a thirst for freedom to expression to meet one another". "If there's anything to learn from this," said Amine, from DigiActive, "it's that with all the internet tools available today, censorship will never be a way to control information."