A secretive state, a compliant population and a censored media: is there any place here for a foreign reporter?
By Holly Tarn
“I don’t understand why they don’t want me here” I said to my friend Khalid one night. I wasn’t talking about the police. I knew they wouldn’t want me here. I was talking about the people.
A few days before, I had been trying to get footage of protests in Rabat. Whilst I was busy trying to hide my lens from the authorities, a man who was part of the protests approached me and told me to leave. I thought it was miscommunication and continued to film. But then another man did the same. And another.
I left. I felt stupid, naive. I thought they would want the publicity. It’s true that I didn’t know exactly what it was about. But I was there to find out, in order tell other people. I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t wanted there.
So I asked Khalid. He told me that my mistake was not recognizing the three laws that govern Morocco: state law, social law and Islamic law. “You have only taken into account the first law,” He said. “The police are not your only worry, the social and Islamic aspects are extremely important too.” We carried on talking all night and more people joined the conversation. I learned many things.
But what Khalid told me about the three laws struck me as especially interesting. The three laws: state, social and Islamic, makes up the structure of society. The laws are at times parallel and at times contradictory. I had so much more to take into consideration than I had at first thought.
I knew about state law. It is illegal to speak out against certain issues, including the government, the King, and the occupation of Western Sahara –which is my main journalistic subject. This means the press in Morocco can’t operate properly. Rather than being a critical discussion space for the people, the majority of Moroccan media is used as a tool for the government to convey propaganda. Foreign journalists have been banned from reporting outside of Rabat unless they have prior authorization. Multiple publications have been banned from reporting in Morocco, including most recently Al-Jezeera.
On top of these strict state laws, I also have to take into consideration the social law. Things that you can only begin to understand by living here. One of these is that people don’t trust the press here. Knowing what I know about censorship in this country I should have guessed that. And people are afraid of the police. They are afraid that if the police see you interviewing them, they will get beaten. This happens a lot. The police in this country are corrupt and violent. It’s common knowledge among locals that plain-clothed police officers are out in force. “You have CCTV, we have undercover officers,” I have been told. I’ve also been warned that phone-calls and online activities are tapped. At first I thought this was paranoid, now I’m not so sure.
Thirdly, I have to take into consideration that all parts of Moroccan life are heavily influenced by Islamic culture. It justifies the King’s position. It justifies morality. It justifies everything. I have to educate myself practically from scratch on a hugely complex religion in order to understand the mentality of the population, the government, the press.
At times I have questioned whether there is a place for me here at all. When I was studying at university I was always critical of the western mentality for claiming we know better than non-westerners, and that makes it OK for us to go into their country and tell them what to do. Yep, just whip off your burka and come put some jeans on and eat a McDonalds like the civilized white people. And then leave the country with half a developed infrastructure, coexisting with widespread poverty, and a thirst for money.
I thought maybe that’s what I was doing. Middle class white girl does a journalism degree and decides she’s going to hop over to Africa and tell them about world peace. But then I started to have my inbox flooded with appreciative Saharawi people thanking me for not forgetting them, telling me of the hardships they face, inviting me to their homes. I realized that it wasn’t about west being better than non-west. It wasn’t about England and Africa. It wasn’t about Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam. It was about the basic human rights of a group of people who deserve a shot at self-determination and happiness. There is a place for me here. To help those people.
That doesn’t mean I’m going to blindly cry out for revolution, fight all authority and trample over thousands of centuries of culture and tradition. I respect that this country is not my homeland. What I hope to do instead is to slowly integrate myself into, and educate myself about, the society, state and Islam so that I am in a suitable position to report objectively when it is needed.
I hope that without degrading or insulting others beliefs that we can move forward slowly and peacefully towards a more opening and questioning media in Morocco, in order to enlighten and educate, and ultimately improve the lives of those that have suffered under Moroccan authoritarianism.