FEZ, Morocco -- At least five people died and dozens were injured when government security forces clashed with local protesters in the city of Laayoune, Morocco, in November 2010, just days before peace talks were set to begin.
The BBC reported eyewitness accounts of Moroccan forces entering the camp in the early morning with helicopters and water cannons. The violence was “the worst seen here in decades,” according to a story in the New York Times, which also explained how the incident had “renewed a long-festering conflict between Morocco, which governs Western Sahara, and the separatist Polisario Front, based in and supported by neighboring Algeria.”
Adnane Bennis and his brother Samir watched and read about the events in their homeland from the U.S., where they’d moved for work some years before. It wasn’t just the violence that troubled them, but also the media coverage.
“Everybody was blaming Morocco,” said Adnane, now 34. “We didn’t see any papers talking neutrally about the problem. .... We said, ‘The time has come to create a platform where Moroccans over the world and the Moroccan diaspora can express themselves and talk and criticize or create something else.’”
At the time, Adnane was driving a cab and working a tech job in Chicago, while Samir was busy in New York as a political adviser to the United Nations community. But Adnane had a long-held passion for journalism, and Samir had deep expertise in his country’s politics and history.
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Within a year, they launched MoroccoWorldNews.com as a voice from the inside.
Today, MWN is the only English-language publication in the French- and Arabic-speaking country, with more than 80,000 Facebook subscribers and readers from more than 160 countries. The duo funds the site themselves, and utilize a network of volunteer contributors to publish in-country and global news from a Moroccan perspective.
They had a lot to cover at launch.
“One of the reasons we decided to start the website was the so-called Arab Spring [in 2011],” said Samir, 37, who serves as editor in chief. The media at the time focused mostly on Egypt and Tunisia, but Morocco saw its share of Arab Spring protests too. King Mohammed VI managed to avoid the fate of his Egyptian and Tunisian counterparts by establishing a new constitution that made the prime minister head of government. The king has also made great efforts to modernize and make his country a global economic player, but the global community is still quite divided on him.
“Morocco’s 2011 constitution incorporated strong human-rights provisions, but these reforms did not lead to improved practices,” reads a report from Human Rights Watch that echoes other international watchdog organizations.
Meanwhile, the local press has faced severe restrictions. In fact, the monarchy ranks 136th on the World Press Freedom Index and scored just 37 out of 100 on the 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Against this backdrop, the Bennis brothers aimed to fill what they saw as a vacuum regarding Morocco in international media.
“Newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post are reliable, but it’s not like someone who lives in the country and understands the social and cultural issues,” said Adnane over coffee on a rooftop overlooking the city’s ancient medina.
“We have some topics that we want to cover in a certain manner, like the issue of the Sahara,” added Samir, who studied the regional dispute in southern Morocco for his Ph.D. thesis and often lectures on the topic. “This is a very, very hard topic and there is a lot of misrepresentation – I don’t blame people for that. …. As a Moroccan citizen, I try to show people the other side of the story.”
The Western Sahara, a phosphate-rich region in the south of Morocco bordering Mauritania and Algeria, has been under dispute for generations. A province of Spain for most of the 20th century, it came into conflict after an insurgency formed in the 1970s, led by indigenous people. Thousands fled the region, and the Moroccan government has been clashing with insurgents there in the years since. Despite various attempts at diplomatic intervention, insurgent groups continue to fight for independence, while Rabat proposes autonomy.
The United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara was established in 1991 to facilitate a vote among residents to decide on their autonomy. It is still in operation but has been criticized for being the only U.N. peace-keeping mission without the capacity to monitor human rights.
Last month, Samir Bennis gave a lecture on the Sahara dispute at Princeton University, where he outlined the 80-year historical background and commented on attempts at resolution. He argued that self-determination for people in the Western Sahara is not a viable option.
“We cannot call for a political solution and insist at the same time on the concept of self-determination as meaning the independence of the Sahara,” he said during his talk.
The MWN editorial team charged with presenting these issues to the world are mostly local Moroccans, and some American and European expats and students.
Larbi Arbaoui, an English teacher from southern Morocco, has been a contributor for over a year, writing about everything from banking policy reform to the nuances of Moroccan tea culture.
“I remember when I was a student, I was desperately looking for something written about my country in English, but in vain,” said Arbaoui, 33. “With the rise of the Internet, students have enormous sources in English, but still the content about Morocco is very limited.”
Arbaoui grew up speaking Berber, and is one among many contributors for whom English is a third or fourth language. But complementarily, many of the editors are American expats or exchange students looking to learn more about the country or develop their journalism skills.
“I wanted to use my legal, business and writing background, and my cultural understanding of Morocco to help MWN become one of the premier news services in this genre,” said Elisabeth Myers, an American lawyer, entrepreneur and former English major, who edits and is helping the team develop editorial policies, standards and a code of ethics.
“There is much mystique and misunderstanding in the U.S. about Muslims and the Middle East and North Africa,” she said. Dispelling these myths, she adds, is important to help foster communication and understanding in the future.
To that end, the site puts out plenty of good news about Morocco, and “many people criticize us for that,” says Adnane. “But despite the troubles we have, despite the corruption, despite anything that’s happening, we believe that there is hope.”