Morocco's online dissent

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.

“Today the internet has become a vector for change in Morocco, to discuss, to denounce corruption and to talk about civil rights,” Jankari said. “You don’t see it in the streets or the cafes. You have to be connected to feel it. But it’s starting to grow.”

The foundations for such growth are quickly being put in place. The number of internet subscribers in Morocco has nearly doubled since 2007, from 430,000 to 830,000, according to the latest data released by the Morocco’s national telecommunications agency.

Morocco also boasts good connections — the fastest download speeds in Africa, according to the broadband tracking site Speedtest.net — and a burgeoning cyber cafe industry selling access to those who don’t have it at home. Not to mention a growing Facebook community that’s currently 124,000 members strong.

“I actually think that’s a low figure,” said Ghassane Hajji, the man in charge of social media outreach for the U.S. embassy in Rabat. He estimates as many as 800,000 Moroccans are regular Facebook users who’ve simply registered with networks outside the country. “Morocco is the leading Arab country when it comes to the use of Facebook,” he added.

But Hajji says it will take time before the Moroccan blogosphere becomes as vast, varied and politically vocal as those in Western countries. “In Morocco the internet is used more to socialize, to keep in touch with friends,” he said. “At this point Moroccans are more consumers than creators on the internet.” On the edge of the walled old city in Rabat, the capital, the manager of a cramped cyber cafe said her experience bears out this observation. As she hand-wrote receipts on slips of newsprint, Rekid Bouhlal, 27, explained that only 15 percent of her customers use the internet for research or writing.

“The majority, it’s to chat,” she said.

In a quiet corner of the cafe, Hafid Simour, 20, faced a screen filled with fresh instant messages. He said he’s been coming to internet cafes for the last eight years, but the fees of four dirhams per hour (about 50 cents) mount quickly when you spend time writing. “I like chatting, email, listening to music,” Simour said. “Blogging’s too expensive.”