Morocco's blogosphere takes off
It may be a far cry from the millions of blogs active in the West, but Morocco's blogosphere has taken off as the liveliest free-speech zone in largely conservative Muslim North Africa. The Moroccan "Blogoma", as it is called, is home to at least 30,000 sites.
Inspired by bloggers elsewhere in the Arab world, Moroccans quickly saw these personal websites as a way to circumvent censorship while debating taboo or touchy subjects -- such as the monarchy, Islam or the disputed Western Sahara. "It is a genuine revolution because everyone can comment freely on such sensitive topics," said veteran blogger Larbi El Hilali, who set up Larbi.org.
His more than 450 posts since his blog began in late 2004 have encouraged 18 000 replies. He now gets 3 500 visitors per day, with much discussion on the Constitution -- which some feel gives too much power to the king -- and press freedom in a country where journalists have been slammed with fines or suspended sentences for "defamation against Islam and the monarchy".
Though Morocco's own national press union, SNPM, concedes that press freedom has improved, it and global watchdogs say there are still attempts to gag the media. But El Hilali's blog has found that "opinions are sharply divided and many people defend the status quo", he said.
"The Blogoma is like a friendly café," said Mehdi7, whose site weaves light-hearted news and "gossip" from the sidelines of royal visits with more serious reports on prostitution and cannabis cultivation -- which the government is trying to eradicate to end a flourishing illegal drug trade.
Morocco today counts 30 000 blogs for four million Internet subscribers. "That's not much compared to the 1.7-million blogs in France, but it's a lot more than in our neighbours," El Hilali said.
Algeria, next door, has five times fewer, according to DZblog.com, the Algerian umbrella that has counted 5,892 blogs, two million visitors and seven million page impressions since January 2006.
Tunisia is barely breaking the thousand threshold. Blogs in Tunisia and Egypt are more akin to citizen journalism sites, but with fewer residents online they draw less attention than in Morocco. About 1.6-million Tunisians surf the web, while in Egypt they number only one in 10.
User-generated web technology, however, is making an impact in the region. Wael Abbas (33), an Egyptian blogger, was decorated in November by the Washington-based International Centre for Journalists after his site was credited with getting two police officers accused of torture sentenced to three-year prison terms. But blogs in North Africa are not without risk. Karim Amer (22) landed four years' detention last year on charges of criticising Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Islam on his blog, Al Azhar.
And in 2002, Tunisian blogger Zouhair Yahyaoui was given a two-year sentence on charges of "publishing false information" about alleged human rights violations but released on bail a year later after three hunger strikes. He has since died.
Mehdi7 contends that "Morocco is a country where you can still run a good blog".
"I've not yet heard of a blog that has been censored in Morocco, in which case the whole blogosphere here would mobilise," he said.
Global Voices Advocacy, however, a non-governmental agency that fights against censorship on the web, highlighted 17 countries on its "Access Denied Map", seven of which were Arab states -- including Morocco.
In May, Rabat blocked access to the video-sharing website YouTube for six days after it aired videos considered insulting to King Mohammed VI. In June, Live Journal, an overseas platform hosting two million blogs, was also shut down internally after airing material seen as backing Polisario Front rebels, who are fighting Moroccan forces in the Western Sahara.
"The authorities end up looking ridiculous if they believe they can impose censorship on sites because anyone can get round these obstacles," said Citoyen Hmida, the prolific "doyen" of Morocco's Blogoma.
Arab bloggers -- whose language varies from Arabic to English, French and local dialects -- have sought to uphold independence from the powers that be. In the Muslim-ruled Persian Gulf monarchy of Bahrain, for instance, the blogging community resolutely backed three chat-forum moderators arrested in 2005, openly announcing the time and place of demonstrations in their support.
In Morocco, "certain political groups have tried to infiltrate the Blogoma but it has shown a remarkable capacity for self-preservation", said Moroccan web consultant Othmane Boummalif. "These blogs are like taking a regular temperature, distinct and localised, of the daily reality," said Mehdi7.