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Talk Morocco - Citizen Media - Interview with Mahdi

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- Hisham: Welcome everybody. Today we are meeting Mahdi, an author for Talk Morocco. Our topic for this month (June) is about Citizen Media. We're discussing this topic today with Mahdi. What's your take on citizen media in Morocco: does it have any future or any impact? - Mahdi: My point of view might sound pessimistic. I think citizen media in Morocco is still at its beginnings. I generally see an exaggeration in the perception of the real impact and role played by Citizen Media. And I think this exaggeration will continue to be associated to it in the future, even if Citizen Media will continue to evolve and spread. I'm afraid this exaggeration will still continue to exist. - Why do you think that is? - I think this comes from the fact that users of social networks keep interacting between each other and end up getting the illusion that they are dealing with a larger public. I mean they talk exclusively to each other and cultivate the illusion that they are having an impact or that they are prompting a large response. We've seen examples of that in Morocco recently even if the experience there is still at its very beginnings, some people tried to initiate campaigns starting from online social networks but where groups have succeeded in attracting tens of thousands, or videos have been viewed by hundreds of thousands, people who go on the ground are very few. Even in Iran, where citizen media is held as a successful example, (some have gone as far as to suggest giving the Nobel Peace Prize to Twitter) this was an obvious exaggeration and observers, some of them of Iranian origin like Hamid Tehrani of Global Voices Online said this was clearly inflated. Where it was said on Twitter that 700,000 were protesting, 7000 really hit the streets - Listening to you one would think blogging and social networking have no impact whatsoever. Is there anything positive associated with Citizen Media at all do you think? - Surely there are positive aspects. For example in defending individual freedoms. I pretty much agree with those who have a very positive view on the role played by Citizen Media to advocate freedoms. This was made obvious with the campaign to free Bashir [Hazzam] that was pretty successful. We obviously couldn't help Bashir get acquitted but it was a success, albeit relative. - But how do we know that blogs and social networks are behind this success? There are little ways to assess the real impact of those campaigns on decisions relative to releasing activists for example. What makes you believe that campaigns over the Internet have influenced those outcomes? In the case I mentioned it was obvious that awareness was first raised over the Internet and then the information was picked up by the media. I can reverse the question and ask you: if the online campaign wasn't influential, how can we possibly explain the fact Bashir was released way before his sentence was completed? - Are you saying Morocco is a country where online campaigns that can get the information through to the outside world about political prisoners are more likely to influence decision makers? - No, not necessarily to the outside world. The idea that the information should necessarily get to the outside world is a delusion. The information should get circulated within Morocco first. And the fact that the information goes into the Internet is no guaranty. For instance the campaign for the release of Chakib Khiari was larger than Bashir's campaign but to no avail. In other words a campaign doesn't necessarily bring results but when there's an outcome it often involves a campaign... That's my view on this. - How do you think online activism can be better connected to the offline world? What are the better ways to link both? Should political parties get more into the Internet? Should online activists constitute a political party? How should they go about doing this? I personally think that people who are already active on the ground should use the Internet more to get their message through. I'm talking about associations, cultural clubs, theater and sports enthusiasts... and not necessarily political parties. As for going from the Internet into the real world, there you can consider me a skeptic, or as my friend Simon [Columbus] would say: I'm a techno-skeptic! An electronic skeptic if you want. I don't think that an activity that bases itself exclusively on the Internet can foster an effective movement on the ground. I can't imagine that a political party for instance can start from Facebook... I find it absurd really. - Actually there is a political party in Sweden that has started on the Internet and has made it to the parliament (see Piratpartiet) Some suspect that the Moroccan government at some point will come up with a law similar to the Press Code, and will apply it to bloggers. What do you think of this? Are fears about such development justified? I'm against any attempts to regulate blogging as opposed to journalism. We've seen this in France recently... when a Senator suggested that Bloggers should no longer be allowed to publish under pseudonyms. If we follow this logic then even commenters will be requested to disclose their identity. Should we then monitor everybody: Those who blog and those who comment? And should every blogger get a permit? No. I'm for blogging to remain a free activity. Those who want to blog under pseudonyms should be able to do it... as well as those who write under their real name. Of course all abuses should be prosecuted. Libel, slander and attacks against people should be prosecuted... under the Law, with a fair hearing and also penalties should be proportionate. - Where would you put the limits of freedom of expression on the Internet? Should there be any limits? - I think this question goes beyond my capabilities... - Give us your personal opinion. Where should people and bloggers in particular draw the line? - I think the limits are defined by existing laws regarding libel, slander... - Suppose that these laws are not agreed upon. There are some Laws that many consider as preposterous. - Give me an example. - For example when someone expresses atheism... or when someone tries to defend some minorities in Morocco... or expressing some political views still considered taboo in Morocco that some people feel they can't express them in real life and are reluctant to do so online. - Of course when I talk about freedoms I don't refer to the Moroccan Penal Code that is pretty restrictive. I rather mean freedoms as defined internationally and Human Rights in their wider universal reading: Anyone has the right to express him/herself as long as that doesn't affect other people's dignity. When someone writes on a blog political messages or ideas I don't agree with or an ideology I contest and when that doesn't harm me personally and doesn't incite for violence and doesn't call for someone to be killed for example I have no problem with it, as long as it doesn't harm me... And that's what I mean by free expression within the limits of respect for people's dignity. Of course one should always be able to contest Laws within the Criminal or Penal Codes by openly expressing disapproval of such and such Law as an exercise of free expression. - Let us focus on one aspect of the Moroccan blogosphere—the Blogoma as it is called. There is a linguistic divide, pretty specific of the Moroccan blogosphere: there are those who blog in French, Arabic, Amazigh, English. But these people rarely connect isn't it? - Absolutely. - Why do you think they communicate and debate so little? - When we look at interactions between bloggers we realized that they are confined to groups: French speakers and Arabic speakers. Unfortunately, the most prominent French language bloggers don't know much about the most valuable Arabic blogs but I'm not sure the opposite is true since I myself know more about French language blogs I'm afraid. But I know they have little knowledge of Arabic language blogs which I started discovering this year. The lack of interaction may well be explained—as I described in section 4— by the fact that social networks in general allow only for a limited scope of interactions giving users, nonetheless, the impression that they are widening their sphere of interaction whilst in fact they are interacting with... what graph theorists (who applied their hypotheses to sociology)... their "Affinity Group." You can indeed still interact with different-minded people but you tend to keep in touch with those you have an affinity with. This is most apparent in Facebook. In Facebook you can have 1000 to 2000 "friends" from across the spectrum but the mechanisms and algorithms with which Facebook works makes users follow only an affinity group on their timeline as I detailed in my essay [for Talk Morocco]. - Another aspect is linking Morocco to the outside world. Do you think blogging has played a role in connecting Moroccans at home and the diaspora, on the one hand and Moroccans as part of the Middle East and the Arab world and the West in general. Do you think blogging really plays that role? - I can't give an accurate response to that since I don't have objective figures and any answer can only be personal, limited and casual... - Give us your personal experience. - Well personally I think there is a connection between Moroccans at home and abroad but we shouldn't generalize or overstate that role. A lot of people fall into that mistake. Especially in the early days of blogging some bloggers claimed that blogs can link between [Morocco and the diaspora]. There is a lot of exaggeration here. The connection is quite limited. You can indeed communicate with people from places you didn't know before but it is still a limited effect. - If I understand you right, blogging serves Moroccans to connect to each other but mainly to people with whom they already have similarities in opinions with. - For the most part, yes. - How do you explain then, that people who are not Moroccans, not francophone still find some interest in the Blogoma? What interest do you think they may have in reading the Blogoma? - Maybe it gives them an insight into the country different from what is typically provided by traditional media and tourism billboards for example. In Moroccan blogs you won't find the usual tourism narrative about Morocco: Marrakech, Tajine and all the stereotypes. You rather find something different. You talked earlier about foreigners who start to look into the Blogoma for information about Morocco. I think it's too early to draw conclusions on this rather embryonic phenomenon. - Well, you're a skeptic as far as the present state of the blogosphere is concerned. Are you optimistic about the future? - My view will change when organizations working on the ground start using the internet efficiently. And what I mean is a website that is regularly updated with high quality content and stop using [social networks] casually. Some organizations for example find it convenient to use Facebook and they just abandon their website and start publishing their material exclusively on Facebook. Some associations last updated their website in March (three months ago) but the material published on Facebook outweighs the content of the main website. This is absurd because the Facebook page of the association contains mainly active members of the organization or, as they are called in the graph theory, "second orbit" members meaning fans and friends of fans. Which is a quite restricted group. Therefore they keep providing news and material to people who already know about them instead of keeping a regularly updated website that can be visited by people from outside [the sphere of sympathizers]. Moreover, for some organizations people prefer not to join their Facebook pages for personal or professional reasons. Some people don't want their profiles on Facebook to be associated to such and such association or political organization and by avoiding them on Facebook end up missing out on crucial information and material that could have been better transmitted through a regular website.

Video Details

Duration: 16 minutes
Country: Morocco
Language: English
Producer: Hisham Almiraat
Director: Hisham Almiraat
Views: 313
Posted by: hisham on Jul 4, 2010

Hisham speaks to Mahdi about Citizen Media in Morocco

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