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Cablegate: Morocco Press Freedom: Das Patton's Visit

VZCZCXRO1655
RR RUEHTRO
DE RUEHRB #0158/01 0501854
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 191854Z FEB 08
FM AMEMBASSY RABAT
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 8165
INFO RUEHAS/AMEMBASSY ALGIERS 4681
RUEHLB/AMEMBASSY BEIRUT 0539
RUEHEG/AMEMBASSY CAIRO 2291
RUEHTRO/AMEMBASSY TRIPOLI 0268
RUEHTU/AMEMBASSY TUNIS 9516
RUEHCL/AMCONSUL CASABLANCA 3903
RUEHJM/AMCONSUL JERUSALEM 1930

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 RABAT 000158

SIPDIS

SIPDIS
SENSITIVE

STATE FOR NEA - DAS PATTON, NEA/PI, NEA/MAG AND NEA/PPD

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PHUM KPAO EAID KMPI KDEM PREL MO
SUBJECT: MOROCCO PRESS FREEDOM: DAS PATTON'S VISIT

REF: 07 RABAT 1465

1. (SBU) Summary: During his January 16-19 visit to
Morocco, DAS Kent Patton discussed Morocco's media
environment and press freedom with local stakeholders from a
variety of backgrounds. Embassy officials stressed that
passage of a revised press code eliminating prison sentences
remained a key USG reform objective. While Moroccan press is
widely considered to be among the freest in the Arab world,
serious deficiencies remain. The Government of Morocco (GOM)
currently lacks the political will to fully liberalize the
country's press code but seldom strictly enforces it, leaving
a void of uncertainty for journalists to negotiate. While
this void can be arbitrarily exploited to harass and punish
journalists, many prefer to operate within this vague
arrangement rather than sign off on a less-than-ideal
revision that, if strictly enforced, could in practice reduce
press freedoms. Many traditional partisans of press
freedoms, having ascended to positions of power, find
themselves targets of the increasingly aggressive independent
press and thus are reluctant to push for even greater
liberalization. Moreover, the Moroccan press union is weak,
unrepresentative and highly politicized, leaving Mission
Morocco with no effective and obvious local ally with whom to
partner in our efforts to promote legislative reform. As a
result, the Mission is focusing on promotion of journalistic
professionalism and ethics by designing and implementing a
variety of training programs in an effort to boost mutual
confidence and trust between the political class and the
press and help develop the political will necessary to move
forward with legislative reform. End Summary.

-------------
STATE OF PLAY
-------------

2. (SBU) Post's Information Officer David Ranz briefed DAS
Patton on developments in the Moroccan media and USG efforts
to promote freedom of the press and journalistic
professionalism. He stated that Morocco's vibrant,
independent press enjoyed a wide degree of freedom; even the
traditional red-lines -- the monarchy, Islam and "territorial
integrity" (read: Western Sahara) -- were frequently breached
without consequences. Although the occasional criminal and
civil cases against journalists clearly encouraged
self-censorship, there was no evidence that they were
impeding bold, independent journalists such as Tel Quel
director Ahmed Benchemsi from continuing to push the envelope
of freedom of expression. The fact that the most recent
prosecution against Benchemsi under the press code has been
repeatedly postponed indicates a reluctance on the part of
the Moroccan Government to pursue such cases, he stated.

3. (SBU) Passage of a revised press code eliminating all
prison sentences remains a key USG reform objective, but Ranz
expressed skepticism that Minister of Communications Naciri
would be able to bridge the remaining differences between
conservative elements in the GOM on the one hand, and the
media community on the other, over a draft bill that had been
held over from the previous government. He added that there
was a broad lack of political will among Moroccan leaders to
push for a revised press code, even among traditional
supporters of press freedom among leftist political parties
who increasingly found themselves the targets of the new
independent press. Responding to Patton's questions about
potential mechanisms for fostering public demand for greater
press freedom, Ranz noted that the Moroccan press union was
deeply politicized and feckless, and was widely considered to
be unrepresentative of the journalist community (of which
perhaps 10-15 percent are members). Moreover, it was
maintaining a boycott against cooperation with the USG as a
result of U.S. policy in the Middle East, making any
partnership difficult to imagine for the foreseeable future.
Patton urged post to continue exploring creative means to
increase and focus demands for press freedom.

4. (SBU) Patton also met with media mogul Abdelmounaim
Dilami, whose titles include Chairman of the Moroccan
Federation of Publishers (FMEJ), Director of Eco Medias Group
(the largest private media conglomerate in Morocco), and IREX
MENA Media Advisory Board member for Morocco. Dilami said
the media environment had improved significantly since the
early 1990s, especially during the reign of King Mohammed VI.

RABAT 00000158 002 OF 003


Regarding the press code, Dilami said the aforementioned
draft bill was better than the existing law, but went
insufficiently far from the perspective of the press
community. He added that the new GOM had been largely silent
on the issue and he was not optimistic that it would take
action any time soon. He preferred the status quo to a
poorly conceived revision, saying that severe penalties that
are loosely and rarely enforced were preferable to more
moderate sentences that judges would feel compelled to
impose. He admitted that while the FMEJ and the National
Union of Moroccan Press (SNPM) would have little ability to
fight more punitive press laws directly, they could exert
pressure via the articles they publish.

5. (SBU) Later, Patton discussed press issues with Sanaa
al-Aji, the Moroccan journalist who received a one-year
suspended prison sentence and a fine for her article on jokes
in Morocco (including about Islam, sex and politics) in the
Arabic-language weekly publication Nichane. Al-Aji believed
that while Morocco had reduced barriers to press freedom, the
situation remained flawed. On the one hand, journalists
could speak freely and criticize religion with some limits,
but they could still be put on trial for publishing
controversial material, and unfortunately it was not clear
who decided what was offensive. Like Dilami, she felt that
accepting the status quo might be the best course for now
because "at least the King is open and modern."

------------
ALTERNATIVES
------------

6. (SBU) Given the lack of political will on the part of the
GOM and the difficulty of finding enthusiastic and effective
partners among the organizations that represent journalists
to push for a revised press code, the Mission has focused on
training programs to promote ethical and professional
practices of journalists in Morocco. Persistent problems
with basic journalistic ethics in Morocco, coupled with
arbitrarily enforced and punitive press laws, have
discouraged politicians from supporting additional press
freedom. Dilami commented that politicians view their
positions as a path to power rather than a way to liberalize,
and they consider private media as trespassers on their
domain. Until those politicians who hold this opinion are
forced to change their view, meaningful reform will be hard
to achieve. By providing training on ethical standards and
professional practices, the Embassy hopes to contribute to
the building of confidence between the media and the
political class.

7. (SBU) Dilami mentioned a proposal to create a National
Press Council as part of the revised press code, which would
include three independent representatives of human rights and
public interest groups, as an indication of efforts to
institute independent, self-governance of the press and
remove this responsibility from the hands of the government.
Al-Aji agreed on the need for an official media-monitoring
body but questioned who would run it and how. Dilami noted
that the GOM now provided USD 6.4 million annually to
subsidize print media, allowing it to modernize and become
more professional. Still, he complained that so much
emphasis is placed on the political aspect of the media that
it is not appreciated as a means of communication.

----------------
CURRENT PROGRAMS
----------------

8. (SBU) Regarding IREX, Dilami, an IREX MENA Media Advisory
Board member for Morocco himself, commented that he did not
understand the purpose of the program an had the impression
that those who managed it wee professional poject designers
who simply run he same project in multiple countries rather
tha creating new and country specific proposals. He sid to
be constructive, IREX needed to find an apropriate entry
point for its efforts, but he didnot feel that it had. He
cited an IREX project n Jordan that trained lawyers in the
field of prss freedom as an example of being pointless,
becase even training journalists will not change the mdia
environment if publishers are not willing toaccept changes.
Separately, Ranz also encouragedMEPI to provide IREX's MENA
Media poject with the latitude to fund training designed

RABAT 00000158 003 OF 003


specifically for the needs of Moroccan journalists,
particularly the new crop of independent radio stations.
IREX has the potential to be very helpful in promoting reform
in Morocco, but the country's unique position in the field of
Arab media requires adaptation to the needs of the local
market. Dilami voiced concern about Advisory Board members
offering project proposals to IREX, something which he felt
should not be allowed.

9. (U) As an example, Ranz cited a recent pilot project
funded by the Public Affairs Section, which trained the press
corps in Oujda, capital of the Oriental region, in the use of
new media and citizen journalism techniques, such as
podcasting, blogging, and posting videos on YouTube and
dailymotion.com. Ranz noted that the regional press -- both
print and on-line -- played a vital role in fostering
grass-roots democratization by conducting critical oversight
of local governance, as evidenced by the now-famous "Sniper
of Targuist" case, in which someone posted videos of Moroccan
policemen taking bribes on YouTube, compelling local
authorities to take action against the offending parties.
Ranz stated that the Moroccan consultant who conducted the
successful pilot training -- a well-known local blogger
himself -- was submitting a proposal for a MEPI local grant
to conduct similar training sessions in regional cities
throughout Morocco; Patton expressed support for funding this
proposal.

10. (U) DAS Patton has cleared this cable.


*****************************************
Visit Embassy Rabat's Classified Website;
http://www.state.sgov.gov/p/nea/rabat
*****************************************

Riley

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