In Morocco, TV Is Part of Power Game

10:49 PM Aida Alami 0 Comments

By Aida Alami

RABAT — A decision by Morocco’s Islamist-led government in April last year to make television reform one of its top priorities has turned the country’s media industry into a pawn in an escalating power tussle between the governing Justice and Development Party and the Royal Palace.

Throughout the years, the Royal Palace has never relinquished control over the networks. When the Justice and Development Party came to power in November 2011 and Abdelilah Benkirane was named prime minister, one of its first actions was to lay down new rules for broadcasting.
Network managers protested, and King Mohammed VI intervened, appointing a special commission to decide on the matter. Meanwhile, no contracts were signed for a year, putting the industry into crisis. Actors, directors and producers say that they have lost over a year’s work.

“The question is who has the legitimacy to define what Moroccan television should be: the minister of communication or the palace?” said Youssef Belal, a political scientist and sociologist at the University of Rabat who is currently a visiting scholar at Columbia University.

Television in Morocco has always been under tight control of the royal family and long been used as a tool of propaganda.

The country has two main broadcast networks, both state-controlled though one has a minority stake held by private shareholders. The partly private network 2M, offering a mix of Francophone and Arabic programming, has an estimated daily audience of about 15 million viewers out of a population of 33 million; the  Al Oula network, broadcasting mostly in Arabic and providing a daily  account of the king’s activities and charity work, has an estimated audience about half that number.

The new rules would especially affect 2M, imposing more content in Arabic, changing the time for Arabic language news programs and banning some advertising deemed un-Islamic.

“The crisis is deeply anchored in the Moroccan television system,” Nabil Ayouch, a film director and producer, said at a meeting recorded on video in April with other directors, producers and actors to discuss the need to band together to pressure the government and the networks for better working conditions.

Mr. Ayouch said the industry’s problems predated the face-off between the government and the king. For years, he said, production companies have been given too little time to deliver quality productions. Still, he said, the tussle between the government and the king brought matters to a head.

“We are producers, not magicians,” he said. “We need to start getting organized. We haven’t worked for a year and a half.

“Not working another year and a half will not solve the problem.”

After the Communication Ministry introduced new network guidelines in April 2012, it took more than a year for contracts to be issued for programming to be broadcast during the month of Ramadan this July, the time when audiences are at their largest.

The guidelines also imposed constraints on times for commercials, causing an estimated loss of more than $17 million, according to the network managers. Another $35 million of revenue was lost after the government canceled the television license fee for low-income viewers.

Sarim Fassi Fihri, head of the Producer’s Guild, said government changes to procedures for awarding contracts to producers had affected even shows with high ratings, obliging them to submit tenders to a programming commission for new contracts.

“The contracting process is a total aberration,” he said. “A commission cannot decide the programs. They need to be adapted to a schedule, an audience.”

Mustapha Khalfi, the communication minister, defended the new procedures, which he said had ended corruption in programming decisions and introduced more transparency. “This allows equal chances and free competition,” he said in his office. “We respect the independence of the networks while also applying the new Constitution.”

Salim Cheikh, general manager of 2M, has spoken out against the changes, saying that they were major interference from the government.

“The guidelines set schedules, times and guests on the shows,” he told La Vie Éco, a Moroccan weekly newspaper. “This approach is highly resented by professionals who see it as belittling, a throttling of their creative independence.”

According to Mr. Belal, the political scientist, the involvement of Mr. Benkirane and his government in media issues marks a significant break with past practice: Previous prime ministers were less visible and less aware of the importance of media exposure, he said. In the end, the fight over television is essentially a fight between the elected government and the royal counselors who weigh heavily on the country’s political decisions, he said.

The 2M network, in particular, is strongly influenced by the royal cabinet, and specifically the king’s close adviser Fouad Ali el-Himma, a major opponent of the Islamists over the past decade, he said. Mr. Himma created the Authenticity and Modernity Party in 2008 as an electoral alternative to Justice and Development. Meanwhile, as the Islamists and the royalists maneuver for control of the airwaves, the industry is suffering.

“I am currently not living but only surviving,” said one producer who asked not to be named out of fear of being blackballed in the future. “I started a company in France and I’m hoping to start getting more work — but there is a major crisis there as well.”

You can read the story on the New York Times' website.

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