by Jillian C. York
On February 17, as Egypt became the second Arab country to topple a dictator in just one month's time, the Arab Spring seemed eternal and unstoppable. Young activists in several countries across the region, believing that anything was possible, put forth calls for demonstrations on YouTube and Facebook, emulating their Tunisian and Egyptian counterparts before them.
On February 20 - just three days after the fall of Mubarak - thousands of Moroccans poured into the streets of Rabat, Tangier, Casablanca, and elsewhere, responding to calls from civil society and human rights groups. A viral video campaign created by a group called 'Democracy and Freedom Now' just a week prior outlined protesters' demands: an increase in the minimum wage, labour rights, minority rights, education reform, and equality.
Initially, the protests garnered significant international attention. But as the world's attention turned first to Libya, then the rest of the region, and more recently - particularly in the Francophone world, the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair - continuing demonstrations in Morocco have fallen low on the priority list of mainstream media, leaving supporters of the February 20 movement flailing. A terrorist attack on a popular Marrakesh cafe has complicated the matter, giving Morocco a reason to beef up security and justify crackdowns.
Nevertheless, the protests have indeed continued over the past three months, with large-scale demonstrations attracting thousands on March 20, April 24, and May 8 in cities across the country. And while the sizable Moroccan blogosphere has historically been only marginally political, citizen journalism has found a strong point of entry in the absence of mainstream coverage, emboldened by the emergence of professional journalists online, and with the sudden courage to criticise the monarchy.
That kind of fortitude is new in Morocco, where publications have been shut down and journalists blacklisted for crossing the country's three red lines: Islam, the Western Sahara, and the monarchy. Though the Moroccan government blocks only a few websites, bloggers have in the past been arrested for content posted online.
One citizen media initiative that arose out of the protests is Mamfakinch. Co-founded by blogger Hisham Almiraat (the site's other bloggers write anonymously), a Moroccan doctor who lives and works in France, Mamfakinch is a collective blog dedicated to countering what they view as propaganda from state-run media, with free access to information at the core of their work.
Almiraat, who on his blog recently called this a "make or break moment" for Morocco, says that "at some point, the official news agency declared that the protests were cancelled. None of that was true." That spurred Almiraat and his partners to start a new platform. Studying the work of friends in Tunisia and Egypt, they identified Tunisian news collective Nawaat.org as a "gold standard for curating", says Almiraat, "so we decided to create an alternative media entity."
Citizen journalism often serves as a major source for mainstream media. Nawaat's reporting during the Tunisian uprising often help inform major publications, as did the reporting of bloggers and Twitter users in Egypt in elsewhere. Almiraat says that his collective "hopes to serve as a link between citizen reporters and journalists in the mainstream media. We believe that both citizen and traditional media can serve the cause of free access to information and free expression."
Like Nawaat, Mamfakinch uses the relatively small-scale San Francisco based platform Posterous, which allows users to post via multiple methods, including by e-mail, making it filtering-resistant. At a recent event held at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Sachin Agarwal, founder of CEO of Posterous, noted that they recognise their role in the revolution, and have worked to ensure that sites remain accessible; for example, they have developed mitigation techniques to protect against distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks.
Despite the secure hosting and role model, Mamfakinch and sites like it in Morocco are still up against considerable challenges, from the fear of detention to the sheer fact that the world's eyes are elsewhere. The question for citizen journalists, then, is how to sustain global attention during times of protest. It is a question that Tunisians and Egyptians fortunately didn't have to face as they worked to bring down their regimes; Ben Ali fell in less than a month, Mubarak fled after twenty three days. Nevertheless, citizen journalists and activists in Tunisia and Egypt, currently working to ensure the change they worked so hard for truly happens, struggle for attention and cohesion as well.
The model that Mamfakinch aspires to- promoting local viewpoints that will later be amplified by larger media -only works when the mainstream media is paying attention. As Almiraat points out: "The Moroccan regime has nurtured the reputation of stability and is very sensitive to its image abroad."
With that in mind, it will be very difficult for citizen media to captivate a global audience on its own. What is needed is a trust model in which traditional media - from television to print journalism - focuses not just on social media like Twitter and Facebook, but also works with trusted citizen journalism sites to get the local scoop. As mainstream media moves further from a model in which professional journalists are embedded in foreign countries and fixers become virtually a thing of the past, mainstream media would do well to look toward innovative initiatives that combine original reporting from local experts with more opinionated content.
Jillian York is director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. She writes a regular column for Al Jazeera focusing on free expression and Internet freedom. She also writes for and is on the Board of Directors of Global Voices Online.
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