- MATT SCHUMANN
Meknes / Morocco Board News--- It's been nearly four weeks since Moroccans approved King Muhammad VI's constitutional reforms, and the American and European media remains split between praise for and skepticism of the nation's step towards democracy. Depending on who you read, watch or listen to, you can come away with radically different perspectives on Morocco's political situation. To make sense of these points of view, today I'm asking the news media, "Which Morocco do you see?"
Writing in the New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof presents a single-minded view of Morocco's protests and reform movement. He favors the 'fight the power' narrative, exclusively quoting street protesters and liberal political activists critical of the monarchy and desiring a change to full democracy. He portrays the monarchy as "grudgingly" moderate, citing contradictions between prior reforms and the current lack of political freedoms to illustrate the government's equivocal commitment to democratization. In the end, Kristof places Morocco at a crossroads, between real reform and a violent crackdown, a la Bahrain and Yemen, and stating that there is a "whisper of hope" that King Muhammad will do "the right thing."
We find a more balanced assessment of the political situation in Aida Alami's report on the constitutional referendum, also for the New York Times. She begins by quoting an exchange in which a taxi passenger criticizes the February 20 movement for continuing their protests: "Can’t they just leave us in peace. They wanted a new constitution. They got it. What else do they want?" The driver responds, "They are fighting for our rights. I hope they keep on marching until our health and education systems are fixed and corruption, the biggest ill of this country, is gone."
With this frame, she goes on to illustrate some of the constitutional referendum's key drawbacks: the short period of time between the announcement of the reforms and the vote itself, how the King's support for the reforms may have influenced the vote, and the reform's failure to fully address the pro-democracy movement's demands. Her article concludes by predicting that the protest movement will continue until it achieves its goals.
On the other side of the spectrum are the journalists who have joined many Western governments in praising Morocco for its peaceful and 'real' response to the protest movements. The best example of this is CNN's Fareed Zakaria whose interview with Taieb Fassi Firhi, Morocco's Foreign Minister, last Sunday gave the Moroccan government 8 minutes in the limelight to plug its take on the constitutional reforms.
Zakaria introduces Firhi, stating that Morocco, unlike other Arab Countries, "seems to be doing something right" in its response to the February 20 pro-democracy protests. Firhi comes across as harmless (undoubtedly aided by his poor English), and spends the interview explaining how the Monarchy has always supported reform ('we've been reforming for decades'), is moderate both politically and religiously, and is a "special" and "wonderful" place. You come away from the interview enamored with Morocco, the land of adorable government officials who love democracy and moderate Muslims who love Jews.
So how can we make sense of all of this?
This media coverage illustrates the convergence of two narratives: "Arab authoritarianism" and "Moroccan exceptionalism." Kristof strongly represents the former. His article rests on several assumptions: Arab autocrats abhor democracy, only enact superficial reforms that they are doubtful to implement, and pro-democracy movements are always right and deserve our sympathy. This is a pretty simple approach to a complex situation, and Kristof makes some errors.
He never questions whether 'democracy now' is the best step for Morocco. He doesn't address any of the challenges associated with a democratic transition in Morocco, namely illiteracy, corruption and economic inequality. The question of creating real democratic institutions in a country of 50% illiteracy is never addressed. He mentions corruption as one of the nation's ills under the King, but never considers what its role would be in a new Moroccan democracy. And lastly, he makes no mention of the nation's extreme economic inequality which, as we've seen in America, can have a huge effect on democratic politics. But none of these nuances matter to Kristof because they complicate his over-arching narrative.
Alami gets closer to addressing these complexities, but her reportage is incomplete. She brings attention to the shortcomings of the February 20 movement, namely their failure to generate popular support akin to the protest movements in Tunisia and Egypt, but she fails to give much attention to those who oppose them. This is because she follows Kristof in implying that opposition to democracy comes from the powers at be and is illegitimate. Pro-Democracy protesters have unquestionable moral superiority, which is a problematic quality to ascribe to a political movement. It's possible that the woman she quotes as being "fed up" with the protesters has real, morally and politically justifiable reasons for feeling that way, but we're never given the opportunity to judge for ourselves.
At the other extreme is Zakaria, who allowed Foreign Minister Firhi to blast the "Moroccan exceptionalism" narrative across the airwaves. In this story, Morocco is and has always been different from other Arab countries. Yes, it's an autocracy, but it's been reforming for decades. Yes, it's Arab, but also Berber, so Morocco embraces diversity. Yes, it's Muslim, but its extremists are "relatively moderate" and Moroccans love Jews. Implied in all of this is, "we're the nice Arabs, so if you want to go to the Middle East on vacation, come to Morocco, or if your company wants to invest in the Middle East, invest in Morocco."
This narrative is equally as simplistic as Kristof's. The statement that Morocco has been reforming for decades brushes over past oppression and the current lack of political liberties, namely freedom of the press. Assertions of cultural and religious diversity and moderation are historically accurate, but tend to be exaggerated. Fareed Zakaria mentioned how the King of Morocco sheltered 200,000 Jews during World War Two, but said nothing about how or why those Jews suddenly left Morocco in the 1950s. This is the story that Morocco's government would like everyone to hear and believe, but is grossly incomplete.
The failure to address complexity and nuance is commonplace in today's journalism. Readers and viewers expect a complete story in 1000 or 1500 words or 5-10 minutes or less. This puts extreme limits on a journalist's ability to convey a complete, multifaceted story. As a result, some, like Kristof and Zakaria, forego any attempts to balance their narratives. Others, like Alami, try, but for whatever reason, fail to do so.
With Morocco as an example, we can see that it is difficult to find complete coverage of complex world events in any one media source. It is a reader's and viewer's responsibility to read and watch widely. But even then, it's hard to find intelligent, nuanced analysis in today's media environment.