The reforms shaping Morocco’s media sector since the beginning of the millennium have been characterised by a unique set of features which differentiate them from similar experiments in the Southern Mediterranean. Morocco’s experience of the past few years differs markedly from that of other Arab countries: it has not witnessed uprisings such as in Tunisia and Egypt; nor has there been a breakdown of state authority as was the case in Libya; nor has it experienced civil war as has been seen in Syria. However, it has introduced a new legislative system which has resulted in some reforms in the media.

While the Moroccan government did adopt some of these changes as a result of the events that have took place in the countries involved in the “Arab Spring”, its reform initiative began much earlier. It declared its plan for transition at the start of the decade and a new Moroccan constitution was promulgated in 2011. This has seen the country adopt a more transparent and open stance, more closely in keeping with international standards, despite some criticism from activists and the media.

In Chapter 28, the constitution states that “freedom of the press is protected and cannot be restricted by any form of censorship, and that everyone has the right to freely express and disseminate news, ideas and opinions, except as explicitly provided by the law.”

The former constitution takes on board some of the key issues related to reform of the media that have been debated in the last five years. It provides the media with a framework of legislation that seemingly supports media freedom; whereas in reality that legislation is subject to the jurisdiction of other laws.

A new legal system

Morocco has seen much more progress in media legislation than other countries in the region over the last decade. It has issued a new set of laws in order to inform better journalistic practice: a Press and Publication Law, promulgated in August 2016, a Professional Journalist Law and a National Press Council Law. These all work together in order to ensure that an integrated legislative environment will support independent journalism. They also work alongside broader media legislation such as the audiovisual communication law.

The Moroccan government wanted to ensure that its reform of media legislation not only created an improved regulatory framework, but also brought about reformed journalistic practice. They focused on areas such as establishing freedom of information and developing a more pluralistic environment. They increased the broadcasting spectrum of the Amazigh channel (an indigenous group which has often decried its lack of representation in public media), as well as instigating some reforms of the public media. This included increasing the number of political debate programmes, as well giving opposition parties proportional coverage to the government in state-owned media.

When criticised regarding the extent to which new legislation adheres to international standards, Information Minister Mustafa Khalafi defended the laws in an article published in March 2016 saying: “We have abolished prison sentences for freedom of publication cases, and recognised electronic journalism, as well as organised its practice.”

Some researchers, including Abdellatif Ben Safia, Professor at the High Institution for Media and Communication, in Rabat, confirm that the new laws have seen progress in a number of areas. These include “producing a modern generation from the agreements that were shaped in the constitution. These agreements draw the characteristics of a modern social project, based on laws and rights.”

Rashid Zamhot, head of the Al Alam newspaper bureau in Wajda, suggests that “these laws came after a lot of work and effort, and in the context of reforms in Morocco.”

Criticism and fears

There is widespread agreement that the reform efforts have yielded a number of positive aspects that will enhance media freedoms and encourage professional practice.  However, there is also some criticism of the reform process mainly that is insufficient and not reflective of the political will for reform.  There are also concerns regarding repeated attempts at limiting freedom of expression and targeting journalists. This can be seen through the use of physical and verbal violence, as well as the imprisonment of practitioners, which is often legitimised through legislation. Critics are quick to reference Morocco’s performance in international and regional press freedom indexes.

Muhammad Al-Madani, a constitutional law professor at the Faculty of Law of the University of Mohammed V in Rabat, agrees that that there are a number of negatives aspects that exist in the new legal system. He describes the draft press law as “a law that is ambiguous, and that includes restrictions and weak wording”. This is supported by Jamila Barakawi, university researcher at the Faculty of Law in Oujda. She opines that, while there are inherent advantages to the new legislative system, there are also some drawbacks. These include vague definitions and references with regards to criminalising public order offences. While the penalty charge for such offences has increased – it is now approximately 100 thousand Moroccan dirhams (one US dollar = 10.17 AED) – the law refers to crimes related to “disturbing public order,” or “influencing the morale of the army”, terms so broad that their interpretation is left to the discretion of judges, who are not always supportive of a free or independent media landscape.

An increasingly angry journalists’ syndicate

The Syndicat national de la presse marocaine (SNPM) criticised the new legal system, referencing the “regular violations” of press rights and media practice. In its annual report, which covers the period from May 2015 to April 2016, the SNPM challenges the government’s claim that it had worked with the media on the amalgamation of all media legislation into one law. The report also claims that, in fact, the new constitution has allowed for the “sentencing of crimes allegedly related to freedom of expression, to reference terrorism or criminal laws, rather than the three previous media laws”.

The syndicate believes that the abolition of prison sentences is in fact a fallacy as journalists can still be imprisoned for their work when they are tried under other criminal laws.  This practice has been denied by the Minister of Information and others who suggest that “the new media legislation does not allow the application of other legislation as media professionals are protected by their specialism”.

The SNPM adds that the legislative reform did not include the transition of state media to public service and that it is still a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment to criticise the monarchy, religion and nation state.

The union has also complained about the high level of fines and the issue with transmuting fines into prison sentences if journalists are unable to pay. It has also complained about the increased number of generalisations in the language of the legislation as well as the lack of impetus to establish a system of self-regulation for the media industry.

The SNPM points towards an increase in verbal and physical violence against journalists, as well as in lawsuits against reporters, which threaten to overshadow any of the positive elements of the new media legislation.

The Moroccan media industry has suffered for decades from a deficient legal framework, despite calls for reform since 1993. With the exception of one small legislative change in 2002, it was the 2011 Constitution that brought about a more comprehensive reform of the media industry in Morocco.

Moroccan journalists, researchers and critics alike have all complained about so-called “counter-legislation“, describing the absence of media legislation over the past decades as a legislative policy in and of itself.

Morocco now has a legal system that governs the press and media sector, establishing principles which are more consistent with the Constitution. This is an asset in its own right although doubts persist around the true level of political will to abide by its provisions. Concerns also remain due to continuing violations, the absence of reform measures in practice and the presence of conflicting laws.