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Morocco's online dissent

Government critics go online to express their opinions.

As more Moroccans use computers, the internet and blogs are becoming areas where people express criticism of the government. Here a Moroccan woman uses a laptop at the Fourth Arab Innovative Teachers Forum in Skhirat, near Rabat, in April 2008. (Rafael Marchante/Reuters)

RABAT, Morocco — When the Moroccan government censored two magazines for publishing an opinion poll on King Mohammed VI last month, it did so the old-fashioned way: it seized  and destroyed all copies of the publications.

But silencing dissent about the censored poll — which showed a 91 percent approval rating for the monarch — proved impossible in the digital age.

Within hours of the seizure, a chorus of Moroccan bloggers denounced the move and a fast-growing group sprang up on Facebook, "Je suis un 9%" ("I am a 9 percent"), referring to the minority of polled Moroccans who voiced disapproval of the king. While users here mostly employ the country’s widespread broadband internet service to socialize, Morocco's online journalists say this event proves the web is poised to become a new forum for free speech in Morocco.

“In an era of new technologies, our officials must understand that such actions are like to trying to hide the sun with the palm of one’s hand,” wrote a blogger calling herself "Une Marocaine," a day after the government seized copies of the two weeklies, “Tel Quel” and “Nichane” that published the poll.

“What would have passed as banal news item has now become a scandal,” she wrote.

Another well-known Moroccan blogger, who goes by the online handle "Ibn Kafka," voiced outrage that the government would take the trouble to silence news that 91 percent of Moroccans approved of their king.

“But even this score wasn’t enough in the eyes of the governing elites,” he wrote. “The act of merely expressing an opinion about the reign of Mohammed VI is considered a sacrilege.” Morocco’s communication minister, Khalid Naciri, said the government doesn’t have the discretion to pick and choose when it comes to speech questioning the king. “The Moroccan constitution says the person of the king is sacred,” Naciri said. “If you try to organize a poll on the monarchy, that’s an attack on the sacredness of the institution.”

But the editor-in-chief of “Tel Quel,” Ahmed Benchemsi, said the absurdity of censoring evidence of approval could ultimately backfire on the palace. “I’m in the 91 percent, that’s the funniest part,” he said. “I guess I’ll have to be in the nine now.”

Online journalist Rachid Jankari, who writes for several Moroccan websites, said the post-censorship backlash in cyberspace marks the beginning a new era in for free speech here.