Independent press wins big in Morocco elections

There was only one clear winner in last month's parliamentary elections: the independent press.
By Sanaa Al A'ji, Correspondent
 MOROCCO, Casablanca. Elections 09/2007 ©AFP PHOTO / ABDELHAK SENNA / المغرب. الدار البيضاء. انتخابت
Casablanca, Morocco. Campaigning for the 2007 elections. © Abdelhak Senna / AFP

CASABLANCA - Only thirty-seven percent! The percentage of Moroccans who went out on September 7, 2007 to choose their representatives in parliament only just exceeded a third of registered voters.

A lot of ink has been spilled in the Moroccan media over this apparent divorce between the Moroccan people and its politicians.

A multitude of analysis was written about the failure of the Islamists, who had been predicted to win with a landslide but did very poorly, and about the collapse of the Socialist party.

Predictions were made about forthcoming alliances and who the King would name as prime minister.

But how did the Moroccan media themselves fare during these elections?

Did their approach differ any between September 2007 and October 2002, the date of the previous parliamentary elections?

In order to answer these questions, we need to differentiate between the print media and the audiovisual media.

TV: less boring, please!

In Morocco, the state monopolizes the audio-visual sector.

Liberalization is still in its infancy and has so far only been applied to radio.

As a result, the only TV channels are the official ones: 'The First', or Al Rabat as Moroccans call it, and 'The Second' or Dozim, its official name.

In order to ensure that the various political parties got equal airtime, the government determined the number of broadcast hours dedicated to the parties.

It distributed these hours evenly between the parties of the current majority and the opposition parties.

This initiative deserves praise since the state took a neutral stance and provided a media platform that enabled the parties to communicate with the voters.

Hence, the higher committee for audio-visual communication, Lahaka, set the fundamental basis for ensuring pluralism while at the same time respecting the principle of seniority.
Until August 25th, when the electoral campaign officially started, the various parties had benefited from around 170 broadcast hours on the two national channels, or an average of two and a half hours every day.

The problem, say many observers, lies in the fact that the two channels relied on a classical style to convey the news.

According to Mohammad Hafiz, former managing director of Al Sahifa daily, [the TV channels] “pursued the news in a traditional way, without dialogue or genuine debates."

For their part, the parties themselves used this precious opportunity in their usual oratorical way, with little or no regard for the requirements of the media era in which we live.

Apart from a few outstanding experiments, the majority of the parties, along with the TV channels, settled for carrying almost identical speeches in an academic, repetitious and pompous manner that, at best, failed to catch the viewer's attention, and, at worst, caused disaffection among the voters.

"Most of the speeches focused on partisan issues, and were so long that the viewer got bored very quickly", says Hamid Fredy, a communications specialist. "The parties should have made their speeches more vivid and dynamic."

According to Fredy, political parties in Morocco, have yet to realize the importance of dealing with the media, or how to gain new voters through sound, skilful communication methods.

The TV stations themselves didn't too much better, says Mohammad Hafiz.

They relied heavily on the party broadcasts for their elections coverage, while their own programming about the elections was uninvolved and uneventful.

Incredibly, on September 8, when most Moroccans were glued to their TV sets to find out the preliminary results of the vote, the first channel started its news broadcast with a report on the King's activities of the day, followed by Mohammed VI's message of solidarity with the Algerian president following the terrorist attacks in that country.

Only then did the first channel cut to the elections story.

A meek partisan press

During previous elections, the Moroccans were used to heavy campaigning by the partisan press.

A host of newspapers have simply adopted the colors and symbols of the parties whose political line they toe.

Thus it is no secret that Al Ilem and L'Opinion are published by the Independence party, Al Ittihad Al Ishtiraki and Libération by the Socialist Union of Popular Forces, Bayan Al Yawm and Al Bayane by the Progressive and Socialist Party, Al Tajaddod by the Justice and Development party and so on.

The Moroccans typically follow their partisan press with great interest, especially during elections time.

"The elections were always peak sales periods for the partisan press", says Mohammad Hafiz.

This year, however, "the elections coverage of the partisan press lacked its usual power of rhetoric. It was not the strong and fierce partisan press that Moroccans have gotten used to."

The pro-government partisan press adopted a very normal and restrained tone in its elections coverage.

And even the opposition newspapers - the most important of which is Al-Tajadod, the unofficial voice of the Islamist Justice and Development party - did not rise to the level of previous elections campaigns, say many observers.

Freedom after all

Here, it should be added that the independent media played a major role in filling the gap left by the partisan media, especially the daily newspapers, whose coverage was much more intense than that of the weeklies.

Each of the independent newspapers and weeklies introduced a special, innovative style to cover the electoral campaign.

Some adopted a genuinely neutral stance, while others backed one party or another in accordance with their political platform.

Despite the prevailing climate and the lingering questions about freedom of expression in Morocco, the 2007 electoral campaign was marked by complete freedom.

Thus, all voices – from the extremist to the modern – were able to get their message across.
Even the Democratic Path activists and the Moroccan organization for Human Rights, alongside other leftist organizations that had called for a boycott of the elections, were able to have their voices heard and to defend their positions.

Among those was the argument that elections are pretty much futile in a country where the king rules absolutely without granting any real power to parliament or even to the government.

Some of the newspapers and magazines gave the call for a boycott of the elections ample coverage, taking advantage of the opportunity to once again push for an amendment of the constitution to expand the power of the prime minister.

In another development, many independent magazines and newspapers covered the electoral campaigns of the celebrity candidates (ministers, party leaders and the like) in a much more comprehensive way than ever before.

They quoted their jokes, and pointed out their inconsistencies or plain stupidity, and in some cases, their strong points, their exceptionality or uniqueness.

'Photo wars'

The elections this year were also characterized by the use of Internet technology and the creation of websites by many parties.

Some candidates created their own websites, independent of their parties, and some of then were pretty smart, interacting with the voters and featuring video and imaging technology.

It is worth pointing out in this context what could be referred to as the “photo wars” in the elections coverage.

It started with some of the newspapers that oppose the left carrying a picture of a veiled woman distributing flyers for the Socialist Union, which is supposed to toe a secular line.

Then, to retaliate, one of the progressive newspapers carried a picture of a woman dressed in an Afghani-style veil, covered from head to toe, taking part in a campaign for the Islamic Justice and Development Party.

The message: the Islamic party is backward.

But the Islamic papers weren't having any of that, so they struck back the next day with a picture of two women distributing flyers for the Islamic party, one wearing the veil and another one wearing an outfit that showed quite a bit of cleavage.

In the end, one must recognize that TV was the biggest loser in this media war since it was unable to cover event in a meaningful and engaging way.

The lukewarm TV coverage may even have contributed to the lack of interest expressed by the voters and the low turn-out.

According to many analysts, the partisan press also witnessed a significant setback, which in turn allowed the independent press to shine that much brighter.

Indeed, despite the remaining concerns over press freedom in Morocco, it must be said that the independent press covered the 2007 elections in total freedom, without any censorship, imposed or self-imposed.

Sanaa Al A'ji is a journalist at Nichane magazine.