Media Freedom in Morocco Takes a Backward Step

“Islamist ministers are having trouble casting off their religious clothes and dealing with their ministerial jobs” 

That statement from a Moroccan news website was in response to the rather foolish comments by a newly elected Moroccan Justice Minister, Mustafa Ramid, who upset almost everybody by claiming tourists went to Marrakech in order to sin. Now another minister has created an unholy row by attempting to make public TV and Radio stations more religious. It is unfortunate to have come at a time when the media in Morocco are seeking greater press freedom. Ibn Warraq reports.

Communications Minister Mustapha Khalfi

“Khalfi is the minister of communications and a government official, not an imam or a mufti to say what is licit or illicit,” Mohammed Ouzzine, Minister of Sport

Somehow it has escaped the Communications Minister Mustapha Khalfi from the newly elected moderate Islamist party that he is a servant of the people and not an imam.  His new guidelines for public broadcasters include petty measures such as banning lottery advertisements and mandating the broadcast of the call to prayer five times a day.

In another controversial section the detailed guidelines also call for reducing the amount of French on public television and including programs about youth and social issues that must include a mufti, or Muslim cleric.

“These channels are performing a public service and so they must submit to certain minimum requirements,” Khalifi told L’Economiste daily last Thursday.

The state channels previously had little overtly religious programming.

The furor over the guidelines’ religious aspects has grown over the last few weeks as the heads of the normally docile public TV stations have publicly criticized the measures as a threat to their independence.

Observers say the controversy is also about a newly elected government attempting to assert itself against the all-powerful palace and king that have traditionally controlled the media.

In an interview on Friday, the news director for Channel 2M said the guidelines represent “a will to kill the programming on Channel Two. This is not a license agreement. It is a programing list, and logic and our profession says that politics should not dictate TV programing,” Samira Sitail told the daily Al-Ahdath Al-Maghrebiya.

The head of public broadcasting, Faisal Laraachi, said: “Our editorial independence is sacred.”

Members of Khalfi’s own Justice and Development Party have fired back, with one parliamentarian threatening street demonstrations against the heads of state media, if the measures aren’t adopted.
“These figures fighting against our party are the same ones resisting reform,” Abdallah Bouanou told the daily Akhbar al-Maghrebiya.

The influential Morocco World News is reporting that Abdelilalh Benkirane, head of the government, is believed to be heading towards dismissing both Samira Sitail, head of the news department of 2M channel, as well as Salim Sheikh, director of the channel.

PM Abdelilah Benkirane and Samira Sitail head of news at 2M-TV

Backed by constitutional amendments that give the government greater powers, the Islamist-led government has been flexing its muscles. Yet, if PM Benkirane does not bring a little more common sense to his ministers’ proclamations, he may find he is leading a one-term government. Or, in the short term may even forfeit its majority, because, while the Islamists are the dominant party in the coalition, it shares power with three other parties.

Many of these coalition partners are uneasy with the Islamist party’s reform efforts and a number of ministers have been vocally critical of the media guidelines.  Nabil Benabdellah, the minister of housing and former communications minister from the left-wing Party of Progress and Socialism, even threatened to quit the government over the guidelines before backing down in a later radio interview.

There is also opposition to the guidelines from the public who who fear the Islamization of the media. At a time when the Arab Spring could have headed to a glorious Arab Summer, these developments could be an indication of an early and unpleasant Autumn.
( / 21.04.2012)

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