“It may be a far cry from the millions of blogs active in the West, but Morocco’s blogosphere has taken off as the liveliest free-speech zone in largely conservative Muslim North Africa.” Agence France Press, January 2008.
Let me tell you a story. It happened about two years ago. There was this young Moroccan teenager who loves football like nobody else in his classroom. Barcelona Football Club was his cause of worship.
He would rarely show in class without his blue-and-red Barça shirt on.
So great was his passion that one day he decided to remove the word “King” from the country’s motto “God, Nation, King,” written on top of his classroom’s blackboard right below the king’s portrait, and replace it by the only thing that matters to him, “Barça.”
Instead of considering the matter for what many regarded as a stupid prank, the school’s director decided it was a felony and denounced the student to the police. The constitution loosely defines the Moroccan king as sacred, which makes any act or statement that might be considered disrespectful for the monarch, a crime.
The arrested teenager ended up sentenced to eighteen months in prison.
The story was closely followed by the Moroccan blogosphere, where many expressed their shock and called for the release of the young “offender.” Bloggers and social networkers shored up support for the young Barça fan and an online campaign gathered pace, whilst Barcelona Football Club officials announced they were prepared to assist the young man.
A few weeks later the teenager was officially pardoned and released in a move that was interpreted as a retreat in front of a worldwide online campaign, that successfully put the pressure on a government still keen to preserve its image abroad.
Why am I telling you this story? Moroccan authorities did not suddenly become extraordinarily harsh or unjust. There were times in the very recent history of my country when people would be disappeared for lesser misdemeanors. But what struck me at the time of this absurd arrest, was this new factor at play that the government could no longer ignore: citizen media.
The background assumption is that you need only to lay down in front of your computer screen and start joining online campaigns or sending supportive tweets or writing thoughtful blog posts to make an impact. It is however a bit more complicated than that in a region of the word where claims of democracy don’t stand scrutiny and where governments are quite allergic to exposure.
It takes a bit more courage to be a blogger, a Tweeter or a Facebooker in a country like Morocco when you have to confront the government, challenge cultural parti pris or explore taboos without running the risk of harassment or even arrest.
Morocco is a country the size of California with a population a little over 30 million. Internet was only introduced (officially) in 1995, and despite a relatively low number of internet subscribers, the country’s citizen media scene is one of the most lively in the region.
During the Global Voices Citizen Media Summit due to be held in Santiago, Chile next week, I’ll be making a short presentation about the Moroccan citizen media: its high points, its potential, its future. Join me then!
Hisham is a Moroccan blogger and doctor, living in France and blogging at almiraatblog.wordpress.com. He is a volunteer reporter for Global Voices Online and co-founder of the online forum Talk Morocco.