Morocco govt riven by debate over media guidelines

Morocco's coalition government has been torn by a fierce debate over new media guidelines that some say require public TV and radio stations to be more religious.

Communications Minister Mustapha Khalfi from the newly elected moderate Islamist party issued the new guidelines for public broadcasters in early April that include measures such as banning lottery advertisements and mandating the broadcast of the call to prayer five times a day.

In a nation that is nearly 100 percent Muslim, the detailed guidelines also call for reducing the amount of French on public television and including programs about youth and social issues that must include a mufti, or Muslim cleric.

"These channels are performing a public service and so they must submit to certain minimum requirements," he told L'Economiste daily Thursday.

The state channels previously had little overtly religious programming.

The furor over the guidelines' religious aspects has grown over the last few weeks as the heads of the normally docile public TV stations have publicly criticized the measures as a threat to their independence.

Observers say the controversy is also about a newly elected government attempting to assert itself against the all-powerful palace and king that have traditionally controlled the media.

In an interview Friday, the news director for Channel 2M said the guidelines represent "a will to kill the programming on Channel Two."

"This is not a license agreement. It is a programing list, and logic and our profession says that politics should not dictate TV programing," Samira Sitail told the daily Al-Ahdath Al-Maghrebiya.

The head of public broadcast, Faisal Laraachi, said: "Our editorial independence is sacred."

Members of Khalfi's own Justice and Development Party have fired back, with one parliamentarian threatening street demonstrations against the heads of state media, if the measures aren't adopted.

"These figures fighting against our party are the same ones resisting reform," Abdallah Bouanou told the daily Akhbar al-Maghrebiya.

The guidelines for public broadcasting, both radio and TV, are issued every few years and are typically vague for a media known to be relentlessly pro-government.

The Arab Spring uprisings that swept North Africa, however, brought about a new constitution and early elections in Morocco that were then won by the opposition Islamist Party, which formed the new government.

Backed by constitutional amendments that give the government greater powers in the face of the long-dominant king, the Islamist-led government has been flexing its muscles.

"The television has never been independent," said Matti Monjib, president of the Ibn Rushd Center, which promotes investigative journalism. "The guidelines are a way of trying through the window, rather than the front door, to take control of public broadcast media."

He said many of the people publicly opposing Khalfi's new guidelines have long taken their orders on what to broadcast from the palace and are just resisting the new government.

There is also opposition to the guidelines from those who fear the Islamization of the media.

While the Islamists are the dominant party in the coalition, it shares power with three other parties, who have been mainstays of earlier more docile pro-palace governments.

Many of these coalition partners are uneasy with the Islamist party's reform efforts and a number of ministers have been vocally critical of the media guidelines.

"Khalfi is the minister of communications and a government official, not an imam or a mufti to say what is licit or illicit," Mohammed Ouzzine, the minister of sports from the Popular Movement, a party of rural notables, said in an interview earlier in the month.

Morocco's sports receive funding from the receipts of gambling. The new guidelines ban the publication of lotto results and other games of chance from television.

Nabil Benabdellah, the minister of housing and former communications minister from the left-wing Party of Progress and Socialism, even threatened to quit the government over the guidelines before backing down in a later radio interview.