The Moorish Wanderer

Media Strategy: We’ve Got It Wrong

Much as I would like to comment on the spiral of violence in the Sahara, I have to confess my equal distaste for siding either the Polisario or Makhzenian side. It would have felt like derogating to a credo I fancy: never mix history and media coverage.
Unless someone can claim to be an ubiquitous, omniscient, unbiased and flawless journalist roaming free and loose in the desert taking shots and recording interviews, no one can claim a fair report on the events of violence in Laayoune and other parts of the Sahara (not even the worldwide press agencies). At the present time, trying to make sense out of the Schmilblink is useless, if not the aim of deliberate propaganda, a typical “Them & Us” situation. Better wait and see. The bovine-minded would tease the doubtful for a perceived lack of patriotism, but the sensible way is to observe; the rest is idle chat.

Instead, I would reach upon a much reasonable subject: both sides fielded various sets of media and communication strategy, which would ultimately give the upper hand to either side prior to the expected negotiations on the Sahara issue. On the record, I assume Morocco has a strategy, because from where I see things, it looks bloody amateur to say the least. the Polisario, on the other hand, when they do not put their efficacious propaganda machine into action, benefit almost naturally from sympathetic reports from mainstream media. As far as I am concerned, in media terms, Morocco wiped out the sympathy it got from the Ould Salma case, and finds itself back in the script as the super-villain, close to the low ebb of November 2009, when Aminatou Haidar was expelled.

Clouds and Ashes over Laayoune (Demotix Picture)

Could it get any worse? Very easily so. Could things get better? Difficult, but feasible if our officials get their heads together and start changing their current strategy, or if they had no prior strategy, to come up with one that would rebuild Morocco’s damaged image. Otherwise, that’s incredible leverage to the Polisario in the upcoming UN-backed negotiation talks.

Media strategy in both sides differ wildly in style: in an age of instant information and shrinking margins for cover-ups, the Moroccan response communication strategy is, and one is economical with the terms, weak, and its efficiency highly questionable: deporting journalists and even members of  foreign parliaments does not help. Official web channels, the MAP for instance, have a very weird way in putting Morocco’s case. In facts it is targeting Moroccan audience. Never mind the foreigners, that’s the Moroccans we’ve got to focus on. On the foreign front, the communication strategy the Moroccan officials seem to follow can be reasonably summed up as follows: ideally, it would be enough to convince the 5 permanent members of the Security Council and around 10-11 non permanent members to back -or at least to abstain- a resolution recognizing Morocco’s sovereignty or its autonomy-based proposal, and as the old sayings goes: “جمع و طوي“. A state can claim sovereignty over a defined territory precisely because other sovereign states recognize the fact. Biafra did not make it because it lacked the proper support of sovereign powers, though it was never short of media and NGOs support. That’s the way our officials’ minds could be moving to.  Large sums of money are spent buying off friends in France, Spain, the US, etc… and paying off lobby agencies to market our side of the story to the high spheres of world leaders. Little is spent on media strategy. The idea seems to be that if the governments are ok with it, their mainstream media will follow suit. In short, there is only one media strategy, and that is to devote time and resources to stifle internal dissent. One tries very hard to notice differences in the way the 8 o’clock evening news briefings on the Saharan troubles of the past week differ from those of the early 1980’s. Save for stylistic differences, the message remains the same. For instance, there were casualties among the security forces; This is likely to trigger quite sympathetic comments from Moroccans readers, but to others, they are merely casualties like others. When a 14 years boy was shot around the protest camp, the same readers worldwide would almost instantly feel more upset about him then about the Moroccan policemen and paramilitary. That’s the way it goes down with the media. Experienced government with press officers and media PR professionals find it hard to deal with. Our authorities are definitely not up to scratch with that business.  Communications with the outside world are, at best, defensive and greet foreign observers with deliberate hostility.

On the other hand, the Polisario leads a guerilla-style propaganda. Their media strategy is definitely outward-looking. In short their Press agency does not differ much from ours. But they do not depend on it to rely their side of the story: much of the mainstream media reported their figures instead of the Morocco claims. The protesters at Agdayme Izik were protesting because of their economic difficulties (as the BBC noted) At the moment the media report the fact accurately, but it is at the same time, casting doubts on our officials’ tolerance for dissidence: “[…]But while the demands are social, the scale of the protest — the people in the tent camp represent a sizeable chunk of Western Sahara’s native population — is testing the Moroccan government’s tolerance for dissent, and its nerve.” In any case, the fact the common Moroccan citizen does not care whether the rest of the world believe Morocco is controlling by force a non-autonomous territory (a j’y suis j’y reste sort of state of mind is irrelevant. To readers  and viewers of well-known newspapers, media networks and TV channels, the Western Sahara will look like East Timor and Indonesia. Right now all the niceties about how complex the conflict is, as well as the criticism of the occult intertwined interest in this dispute dragging on for more than 50 years (trace it back to Mauritania’s independence, that is much more accurate) just flew out of the windows for the most vicious, partisan and nationalistic invectives from one side to the other. Algerian and Spanish media -in their majority- back the Polisario because they have special relationship with them. Morocco relies on friendly foreign countries to mop up the mess and stand by them. To the Polisario long-term media strategy of friendly media and reliable channels to echo their speech, our officials adopt short-sighted and short-term tactics that do worse than anything to our claim. Instead, they devote incredible resources to convince the Moroccan people -that are already obedient and compliant to the official line- that indeed, the acts of violence in Laayoune and elsewhere are a trifle. Some marginals and petty criminals that have gone rogue.

In media spin terms, Morocco fights the communications war just as badly as they did during the desert war of 1976-1991. Little training and absolutely no efficient contingent plan to parry enemy influence. On the media front, Morocco is as defensive as isolated as it has been during the 1980’s. And in facts, the way our communications are channelled did not change much before the cold war. These very strategies fail to capture the tremendous impact alternative media have on people’s mind. And whether we like it or not, the countries our officials are counting on to buttress our claim are democractic, and their elected leaders have to be accountable to their electorate. If these become convinced Morocco are the baddies, the friendship between our two countries won’t matter much…

So what? Do we have to stand idle and let them lead us to disaster? Can’t we devise some alternative diplomacy on the subject? Some did. or rather did try, and they were quite sloppy with it, leading to comparative results. The first thing to do, policy-wise, is to be open about it.The chaps at the interior ministry and the royal cabinet should overcome their fear and be open about things. Get an international panel of journalists from international newspapers, representative from foreign countries, NGO activists, UN representatives. Walk them through the scene of violence. At the age of instant information, damage control would be to accept international scrutiny. Second, be credible. It is obvious that standards of living and, to certain extent, civil liberties are better off from our side of the defensive wall. Be bold, media-savyy. It might be all spin, but in people’s mind -outside Morocco, it will look like an honest country trying to be democratic and open-minded, but that’s just the lousy separatists that want to to blow it off. It started to take off with Ould Salma, but now it is gone; I am getting all Malcom Tucker right now, but this spin stuff should not elude us from the core question: institutional reforms. response was weak and disorganised because of the cast-like bureaucratic hierarchy. What we call in Morocco: “التعليمات”. Instructions. The officials, especially at the interior ministry, cannot take a single decision without referring to their superiors. It goes very high all the way up, paralysing thus the local and central administration in case of emergency. And when initiatives are taken, they are sloppy too because no one will turn up and ask questions. For the Moroccan claim to be solid granite, basic democratic mechanisms have to be introduced in the actual spheres of power. If Morocco talks the talk of democracy and civil liberties, it should walk the walk of institutional and constitutional reforms too. I try to voice up the nihilist inside me shouting and screaming in anger, not because I am being glad my country is entangled in a difficult position because of staff incompetence, but because in the long run, some of the choices that were made in marketing our claim might turn out to be wrong, much to our disadvantage.

Finally, Morocco has to be reconciled with its history in this region. As soon as it captures the media initiative, it should dug into core issues, concrete stuff: admit past errors for one. This is all long term work that requires media knowledge and handling our officials direly need.