Free press takes root in Morocco

August 28, 2006|By Bahia Amrani

CASABLANCA, Morocco -- More than 500 years before Alexis de Tocqueville memorialized his impressions of American society in his celebrated Democracy in America, a Berber traveler from Morocco set off from Tangier on a pilgrimage to Mecca that would last 30 years. Thereafter known as the "Traveler of Islam," Ibn Battuta authored a travel chronicle that would have a profound effect on Islam for centuries.

Unlike Democracy in America, which was concerned with demystifying American life for a French audience, Mr. Battuta orchestrated his own cultural exchange program, taking tidbits from the lands he visited during his trek and sharing them with his rapturous Islamic audience. Breaking down barriers along the way, Mr. Battuta provided to diverse audiences enough common ground and shared experiences that they could relate to each other.

Having just completed my own brief trip to American cities as part of a delegation of Moroccan female media professionals, I look back on my experience as more Battuta than Tocqueville. During my trip, I spoke with journalists, editorial boards, magazine editors and television producers about the development of the free press in Morocco, the pioneering role played by women in shaping its contours, its implications for Morocco's future and, more broadly, the future of the Muslim world.

The development of a free press in Morocco is an encouraging case study with the potential to serve as a model for other Muslim countries. The development of the free press did not occur overnight and continues to be a work in progress. As the founder and publisher of Le Reporter, an independent weekly newsmagazine in Morocco, I have witnessed firsthand the marked change in the attitude of the Moroccan government toward the media.

Only 10 years ago, I had to contend with government censors and agents who would literally park themselves in our offices to monitor magazine content. Beginning with the ascent of King Mohammed VI to the throne in 1999, a new relationship emerged between the government and the media. Not only were distrust and skepticism replaced by mutual respect and support, but the media became the vehicle for a mass reform movement in Morocco, a movement enthusiastically endorsed by the king.

It was this message that I set out to impart to my American media colleagues. Too often, Americans brush the entire Muslim world with the same stroke. To take one example, although Islamic extremism continues to be a scourge to the entire Muslim world, the way Morocco grapples with the problem is far different from the approach taken by many other Muslim countries.

Americans might be startled to learn that the Moroccan government has a zero-tolerance policy for Islamic extremism and has contributed in substantive ways to the world's war against terrorism. Recent government policies have focused on creating better educational opportunities and stamping out illiteracy among disadvantaged youth, a demographic that is most vulnerable to the seduction of extremists. The media pushed for these reforms, and the government, to its credit, enacted the necessary policies.

With independent newspapers, magazines, radio, Web sites and privately owned television network channels around the corner, Morocco can proudly boast that it has the freest media in the Muslim world. Historic reforms to the family code enabling Moroccan women to initiate divorce, and human rights breakthroughs such as the equality and reconciliation commission arose through the efforts of ambitious independent media that consider themselves indispensable to the fabric of Moroccan civil society and a veritable agent of reform. Already, other Muslim countries in the Middle East and North African region are seeking to emulate Morocco's free press; if they succeed, reform and democratization are sure to follow.

In the spirit of Ibn Battuta's epic travels, I consider my trip to the U.S. a success. Our delegation laid an additional foundation to the bridge of understanding between Morocco and the U.S. As a result of the U.S. tour, our American media counterparts gained a better appreciation for the enormous strides taken by Morocco in the last 10 years, and at the same time, the trip afforded me an opportunity to renew my love for America and its commitment to freedom, tolerance and mutual understanding. It is an experience that I will share with my fellow Moroccans for years to come.

Bahia Amrani is founder, editor and publisher of Le Reporter, a Moroccan independent newsweekly devoted to reporting and analyzing national and international affairs, politics, education, business and health issues. Her e-mail is

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