In March of 2006, Livejournal, the popular blogging site, was blocked by the state-controlled telecommunications provider Maroc Telecom (a subsidiary of Vivendi International), depriving Moroccan citizens of access to the roughly 2 million blogs the service hosts. On May 25, 2007, Maroc Telecom blocked access to YouTube for few days. It has been speculated for some time that the ban followed the broadcasting of videos critical of the country's king and in favour of Western Sahara. A spokesman for Maroc Telecom, however, blamed the blocking on a glitch, though he couldn’t explain why it affected only this popular video-sharing website. In August 2006, Google Earth was added to the list of major websites being blocked. And as expected, Maroc Telecom didn’t give any justification for this instance of censorship.
Moroccan Internet users launched several online petitions and other initiatives to protest this violation of their right to free access to information. I spoke with professor and researcher Mohamed Drissi Bakhkhat, the leading Moroccan blogger who is running MoTIC blog and EcoMaroc. Mohamed is doing an amazing job of documenting the Internet filtering situation in Morocco and raising awareness about the Moroccan Media and the impact of new information and communication technologies (NTIC).
Mohamed Drissi Bakhkhat: Your guess would be as good as mine… Unlike what is happening under the worst authoritarian regimes, where Internet censorship is most of the time official and censored content is generally publicly known, Internet censorship in Morocco is meant to be hidden. This clearly serves one main purpose, that of allowing this censorship to be arbitrary and to remain at the discretion of the Makhzen. Otherwise, banning any website or service would have to be justified and follow a judicial procedure. Websites would not be blocked for absurd reasons as it is the case today. The Makhzen tries to avoid being held accountable for these decisions. It has its own laws that have nothing to do Moroccan law.
As you said, the blocking of Live Journal in Morocco dates back to early 2006. It is one of the main and first blocking decisions taken in the ADSL era. Live Journal is surely not banned because of its innocuous blogging feature. Its combination with other social networking features is probably what embarrasses more the Makhzen, or, should I say, embarrassed. I am sure that this decision is outdated. With the current development of social networking services, Morocco can not afford to block them all. I think that Live Journal's ban has not been lifted because nobody questions the Makhzen‘s decisions, particularly when these seem to be motivated by the defense of Morocco's interests, since Live Journal hosts some separatists blogs. No one can tell if this is really what motivated the ban, or if the Makhzen targeted social networking. As for Google Earth, I am almost certain that its ban in Morocco is not a security issue. Again, it is the community feature of Google Earth that is clearly being targeted. Google Earth's satellite images remain easily accessible to anyone who wants to get them. But Google Earth community can be used to easily and efficiently share or coordinate information, for example, about some places that are meant to remain secret. The Makhzen is apparently playing «hide and (don't) seek». And finally, nothing indicates that YouTube's four-day ban was the Makhzen‘s decision. That is why Maroc Telecom backed down so quickly. Interestingly, Youtube‘s IPs remained unblocked during that period. Someone in Maroc Telecom just messed up with DNS servers for an unknown reason. It might well be a personal reason. It becomes a possibility when censorship is arbitrary and when it violates the law. Officially, no one recognizes Net censorship in Morocco!
Sami: The ONI report on Morocco concluded that “relative to the region, Moroccan Internet access is relatively free”. However, compared with other North African countries like Tunisia and Libya where the censors are targeting the websites of political opposition groups, anti-government news and views, Morocco seems to be more interested in blocking access to major websites. How would you describe that? And how do you assess the general filtering and censorship situation in your country?
Mohamed: The least one can say is that Morocco's Internet censorship decisions are awkward. They are spectacular and target viciously some great services that are not banned in the worst Internet black holes! Besides Morocco, how many countries block access to Google Earth or Google Maps? This is indescribable and a shame for a country that is claiming to be implementing democratic reforms.
This being said, Internet censorship in Morocco seems to be nonetheless generally lighter than that in Tunisia because of the rather big difference in political freedom or when one compares freedom of speech situations in the two countries. I do not hear or read a lot about Net censorship in Libya or Algeria, probably because Internet access (mainly broadband) penetration rates there are lower.
Sami: What was the reaction of the Moroccan Internet users in general and the blogosphere in particular vis-à-vis the censorship? Is there any kind of cyberactivism providing circumvention tools to the Internet users?
Mohamed: Moroccan Internet users or bloggers are mainly and clearly against Net censorship, if we judge by the number of posts and comments. MoTIC access stats showed that the number of visitors nearly doubled in the wake of the news about YouTube's ban in late May 2007. This demonstrates that Moroccans care a lot about censorship. They reacted very quickly and started discussing ways to heighten the pressure on Maroc Telecom and on the Moroccan government, or whoever is behind these decisions. Many looked to be convinced that previous censorship decisions were, or at least looked to be, security related. This was obviously not the case for YouTube. That was what triggered the reaction of Internet users and most of the bloggers, even those who were rather lenient toward other unjustifiable censorship decisions. YouTube's ban generated a large wave of protests against Net censorship in Morocco, not only that of YouTube, but also that of Google Earth, Live Journal, and other sites. Some bloggers provided some easy ways to bypass censorship. Given the current situation, I personally prefer denouncing censorship and showing that it can easily be bypassed. I let Internet users look for ways to achieve that.
We are just at the beginning. The best is yet to come for cyberactivism in Morocco, when Internet will be more widespread and people more aware of what is really being censored and for what reasons.
Sami: On the MoTIC blog you document the Internet filtering situation in the country, raising awareness of its consequences on the development of Morocco among Internet users. Does the information disseminated on your blog and elsewhere somehow help in attracting the attention of mainstream and/or citizen media inside and outside the country?
Mohamed: Absolutely. The discussions and the coordination of the actions on MoTIC, maghrebism.com, and other blogs resulted in the creation of petitions, two of them continue to raise awareness and get new signatures almost every day since five months now.
The unprecedented reaction throughout the Moroccan blogosphere inspired many articles in almost all of the Moroccan independent press: Al Massae, Al Ahdath Al Maghribia, Al Ayyam, Le Journal Hebdo (see also here ), Telquel… to name a few. Many of MoTIC's posts inspired articles by Al Massae or Al Ahdath Al Maghribia, the two most popular Moroccan newspapers.
AMDH (Association Marocaine des Droits de l'Homme) wrote officially to Maroc Telecom asking for clarifications about YouTube's inaccessibility for its subscribers. magharebia.com, the US European Command portal, wrote about YouTube's ban.
Internationally, the mobilization against Net censorship in Morocco was covered in Associated Press newswires that were published in the most famous and prestigious US and British newspapers or media (The Washington Post, The New York Times, USAToday, CBS News, BusinessWeek, Forbes, The International Herald Tribune, …). There were also articles by The Guardian, The Times (London, England), and the BBC. John Oates of The Register wrote about YoutTube's ban in Morocco. Ogle Earth, one of the most popular blogs about Google Earth also wrote about Google Earth's ban in Morocco, once citing MoTIC.
For mysterious reasons, the French press remained and remains almost unanimously silent when it comes to Net censorship in Morocco, except for Marianne and Le Petit Journal. Maroc Telecom, the first actor of this censorship, is controlled by French media group Vivendi. Draw your own conclusions… Merci la France!
I would like to recognize here the great role played by Global Voices Online in helping us make this censorship known worldwide. Jillian York posted several times about Net censorship in Morocco which helped a lot in publicizing internationally this censorship and how Moroccan bloggers and Internet users are denouncing it.
Sami: Are you collaborating with other cyber activists and blogger from neighboring countries facing similar situations?
Mohamed: I do sometimes contact privately other bloggers, but collaboration is generally achieved publicly through blog posting and commenting. I would certainly encourage any collaboration with bloggers from other Arab countries. Our governments are not able to achieve strong Maghreb and Arab relations. I see no reason why this would not be possible to achieve among bloggers, who generally are open minded and willing to collaborate.
Sami: We've seen three (and maybe more) different petitions contesting the online censorship in Morocco (censureinternetaumaroc.com, stop-censure.org and petitiononline.com/morocco). Why the apparent lack of collaboration among those different initiatives?
Mohamed: We are talking about events that took place in just four days and without prior notice! YouTube's ban began a Friday afternoon, a viciously chosen timing that is generally privileged by the Moroccan administration when it wants to take actions that are meant to take effect silently. But this did not work with such a popular site. The news about the ban spread very rapidly the same afternoon. Some popular bloggers started a strike the next day. Take a look at this post and the subsequent ones to have an idea of the scope of the reactions to YouTube's ban.
As for the petitions, there was a lack of collaboration at the beginning. www.petitiononline.com/morocco was specifically against YouTube's ban. It was Youssef's (maghrebism.com) initiative. The other two petitions are against Net censorship in general and are spontaneous initiatives by MoTIC readers who coordinated their actions through comments posted on the blog. I gave them some advice and let them do all the work by themselves.
Sami: Have any bloggers or online writers in Morocco been jailed for their online activities? Are you witnessing a crackdown on online freedom of speech?
Mohamed: None that I am aware of. Compared with most Arab, African or Asian countries, we do have a great deal of free speech in Morocco, online and offline (despite some paper press cases). Bloggers probably enjoy free speech even more than paper press who generally censors itself.
There might be blogs or websites against the Moroccan regime that are censored for political reasons. I do not have a list of them, but there were reports in the press about continuous and dynamic blocking of separatist or extremist sites.
I won't use the word “crackdown”, but we did notice since 2006 an important increase in the number of blocked websites and in the scope of Net censorship. Since 2006, Morocco started censoring important websites or services: Live Journal (since March 2006), Google Earth (since August 2006), Google Maps (since Summer 2007), and YouTube (May 25-29, 2007). Anonymization or DNS services like anonymizer.com, Multiproxy, and OpenDNS are also blocked. The question now is: what's next?
Sami: Let's talk a little bit about Morocco's new hero, “Targuist Sniper“, who is using his video camera to shoot images of the daily corruption in the country, filming police officers, one after another, accepting baksheesh from drivers? What more can you tell us about this new phenomenon and what is the impact of such cyberactivism on the battle against corruption in the country?
Mohamed: It is sad to realize that it is probably a short-lived phenomenon. Moroccan police (Gendarmerie royale) conducted what the media described as a brutal search for the people behind Targuist Sniper videos. Four young Moroccans will appear in court as witnesses in the trials of the corrupt police officers. But they might well face charges of humiliation of the police institution because of the bad publicity it got from these videos. Nonsense! What is certain is that those truly responsible for the corruption will never have to worry about any consequences. Therefore, I don't really think that Youtube snipers can significantly help in curbing corruption.