Morocco: Public TV Private Business

By Najib Ben Cherif A freelance broadcast journalist working in London

Since the death of King Hassan last July, Moroccans seem to have developed an insatiable appetite for news. An expanding national newspaper-reading and a domestic television-viewing public appeared to have emerged at least for the time being, as the country has become increasingly hungry for political gossips fuelled by some spectacular political changes including the sacking of the former interior minister, Driss Basri and the dismantling of his fearful local authority system.

The driving force behind these changes is the 37 year-old new King Mohammed VI, a media friendly figure whose liberal style of government and compassion towards the poor has given a new impetus to the way human rights and freedom of speech are dealt with.

King Mohammed VI who is aware of the media impact quickly brought in some significant changes at the top of the official media apparatus by appointing new bosses for the national television and the news agency. Both appointees are believed to be close friends of the King and the fact that they were brought in from outside suggested that Mohammed VI wanted to give the official media a fresh view and a new leadership. But he fell short of removing the managing director of the Moroccan radio and television (RTM), a former close aide to the ex interior minister.

However those who have been betting on a quick improvement of the Moroccan TV output may be disappointed. Apart from some cosmetic changes like the occasional introduction of a "guest" in the 20.30 flagship news bulletin, viewers are yet to see their national television moving with the times as it is facing a fierce competition from more than thirty Arabic-language satellite television channels.

In the meantime it seems that the sudden interest in the national news bulletin recently shown by local viewers has a little to do with any improvement in the quality of the programmes. It rather stems from the public lookout for some exciting news on the dismissals of some controversial top civil servants or the appointment of a new breed of advisers and managers as King Mohammed VI is introducing his personal touch into the political system. It also stems from the public affection towards the new king whose image as a caring sovereign touring the country and mingling with poor and handicapped people has touched the hearts and minds of Moroccans and given a new dimension to the news bulletin.

But TVM needs more than the popular figure of King Mohammed VI to boost its declining audience rating. Media experts argue that the quality of a news bulletin is often seen as a barometer to any improvement in the freedom of speech and the standard of a media corporation. What is striking about TVM news bulletin is the countless stories about royal engagements and ministers' activities. The "holiness" of such stories in the running order makes it difficult to produce comprehensive, balanced news bulletins, which could mirror the democratic transition in the country. It is a complex issue as no high-ranking official at the Moroccan Radio and Television is prepared to put his job on the line by trying to upset the current balance of the news bulletin.

Some cynics may argue that the key to a propaganda-free news bulletin is in fact in the hand of the king and whether he is willing to compromise in the coverage of his daily engagements for the sake of credible news bulletins remains to be seen.

Another issue facing the national TV is the fact that it is swamped with cheap foreign programmes. The national production is estimated at less than 25% of the total output and its quality leaves a lot to be desired.

Much of the budget is spent on maintaining a strong army of bureaucrats within the corporation and very little is allocated to producing programmes. There seems to be no planning, no long-term strategy to improve the output. The main concern of the men in charge has always been centred on meeting the demands of the ruling elite rather than those of the public even if this meant a continuous slump in the audience rating as Moroccan viewers are switching to various foreign broadcasts mainly Arabic-language channels. In fact the lack of any serious accountability makes the Radio and Television top officials act as if their corporation was above any competition.

As for the 2M, initially a fee-charging channel created in 1989 by the largest Moroccan economic conglomerate ONA (Omnium Nord-africain), it enjoyed its finest moments before the TV satellite revolution. Although it relies mostly on foreign programmes to fill in its airtime, 2M brought in a breath of fresh air by breaking some old taboos as it tackled controversial issues. The format of its news bulletin is rather compact and its content is not necessarily focused on the daily engagements of the king.

Despite its early success 2M was technically unavailable in most regions of the country. Only viewers in the western part of the kingdom where most of the wealth is concentrated could tune to it if they could afford the costly subscription (by Moroccan standard) of around 30 dollars per month. With the emergence of the satellite television in the mid nineties, 2M started experiencing some serious financial difficulties as an increasing number of its subscribers cancelled their viewing contracts in favour of free and often more interesting programmes on various satellite television channels.

The limited revenue from commercials was not enough to save 2M from financial bankruptcy and in an unprecedented move the Moroccan first private channel was sold to the State at an undisclosed price. The take over was carried out in the name of preserving the freedom of speech which 2M came to symbolise. Politicians from different ideological spectrums supported the move since 2M was seen as the only national channel open to political debates where the opposition (now in power) could express its view. But there was a hidden cost of this unique take over: a new television tax of about one dollar per month has been illegally added to the electricity bill of every household and business in the country as 2M became a free channel, at least for those who could tune to it depending on the region where they live.

The taxpayers were then asked to pick up the pieces without their consent in order to save an ailing private company. The introduction of this new TV tax albeit undemocratic doesn't seem to bother Moroccan politicians who argue that the public sacrifice is a small price to pay for preserving 2M as symbol of the struggle for freedom of speech. Nevertheless many believe that 2M lost some of its spark and liberal appeal since the take over because of political interference especially during the period when the former interior minister was also in control of the information portfolio.

The general feeling among the establishment is that both TVM and 2M are essential to the survival of the fledgling democracy in the country. If TVM can concentrate on the official side of the news coverage, 2M can carry a wider range of news and views. The democratic process would therefore benefit from such a variety of choices. But the question being asked is whether public money should still be used to fund both channels?

People who support the public funding formula think that broadcasting is too important to be left to the caprice of the market. The idea is that freedom of speech is best preserved by ensuring that both channels are not dependent on private capital for their survival. Furthermore television is a costly business and in a country where revenues from advertisements and commercials are not important enough to provide a profitable commercial basis, only public money can cover the increasing costs of TV production and make TVM and 2M play their role as public broadcasting utility services.

Those who favour the market approach argue that privatisation is a healthy way of creating competition which is a fundamental factor in raising the broadcasting standard in Morocco. But full privatisation can hardly apply to TVM, as the State is unlikely to give up its control over this channel. 2M is most eligible for "re-privatisation" given its private background and the fact that the State cannot keep on financing this channel indefinitely. However the existence of one single private channel would not lead to any salutary competition and it remains to be seen whether the State can go as far as allowing the emergence of more than one private channel in order to give the public a substantially wider range of choice than what is available on both TVM and 2M and on satellite television. The new sponsored channels would specialise providing additional services across the country.

But privatisation in the broadcasting industry often means a battle for ratings in order to generate more money from commercials and this could lead inevitably to lowering television standards especially in the absence of a broadcasting watchdog. As Morocco is going through a democratic process, it is likely that the broadcasting industry will play a vital role in making or breaking this unique experience. A national debate about the future of broadcasting should address such an issue and could come up with some sensible recommendations.


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