Institutional ReformsResearchHas the Auto-regulation of the Press Hit a Dead End?

Ten issues have impeded the National Press Council after an entire decade of constitutionalizing the auto-regulation of journalism.
Mohammed Karim Boukhssass Mohammed Karim Boukhssass25/06/2024142250 min

Ten issues have impeded the National Press Council after an entire decade of constitutionalizing the auto-regulation of journalism.

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Executive Summary
The government’s approval of a draft law creating an interim committee to oversee the press and publishing sector as a replacement for the National Press Council represents a setback for the autoregulation of the press. While the move may seem intended to simplify the complex structure of the council, a closer examination reveals the government’s attempt to control and retract the achievements made in this sector. This has resulted in a sharp divide among unions and professional bodies, with some supporting the government’s decision and others rejecting it. Considering this, the paper evaluates the National Press Council’s founding experience and the issues surrounding the formation of the interim committee, including its composition and agenda. It then proposes solutions to the challenges posed by the principles of multilateralism, elections, and governance.

 

Introduction
On April 13, 2023, the government approved a draft law to create an interim committee to manage the press and publishing sector replacing the existing National Press Council. The committee’s mandate was set for two years, starting from the date of appointing its members if no new members were appointed during this period. The government’s intention behind this decision is to rectify any unlawful circumstances that may arise from the current council’s decisions, which failed to hold new elections despite the exceptional extension of its term for six months, from October 2022. This reflects the government’s aim to find an interim solution to this problem, rather than deferring it until after this period.
This step puts the National Press Council on the line, especially since the draft law, which will enter into force once it is approved by Parliament and published in the Official Bulletin, stipulates that the interim committee shall implement the tasks outlined in Article 2 of the law . This includes the auto-regulation of the press and publishing sector, issuing professional press cards, monitoring press freedom, tackling disciplinary cases related to press institutions and professional journalists who have violated their professional duties and the code of ethics, as well as facilitating conditions for developing the sector and enhancing its capabilities. Additionally, this draft law confers two new competencies on the committee, namely strengthening the bonds of cooperation and joint work among the various aspects of the press and the publishing sector and preparing for the elections of the members of the council.
At first glance, the government’s decision to form an interim committee to oversee the press and publishing sector may seem like an effort to address the complex organizational structure. However, a closer examination suggests that the government is trying to seize control and retract the achievements made in the auto-regulation of the press. This has led to a sharp divide among unions and professional bodies, with some calling for democratic elections. In contrast, others demand prioritizing the amendment of regulatory laws to overcome the imbalances introduced during the establishment phase.

1. Interim committee juncture: extreme attraction

One of the most significant developments of the 2016 Press and Publishing Code was the establishment of the National Press Council as a professionally and financially independent body . The main objective of the council is to promote the auto-regulation of the press and publishing sector and develop necessary regulations that ensure compliance with the profession’s rules and ethics. The council issues professional press cards previously issued by the Ministry of Communication and acts as a mediator in settling disputes between professionals. It also monitors press freedom, ensures adherence to professional ethics, provides feedback on draft laws and decrees related to journalism, and conducts relevant studies on the sector .
The Council consists of twenty-one (21) members, with representation from various branches of journalism; Seven members are elected from among professional journalists, seven from newspaper publishers, and seven members are appointed by the Supreme Council of the Judiciary, the National Council for Human Rights, the National Council for Languages and Moroccan Culture, the Moroccan Bar Association, the Union of Moroccan Writers and a former publisher appointed by the most representative publishers’ association, and an honorary journalist set by the most representative journalists’ union, provided that these representatives have experience in the field of media and journalism. The council must strive to ensure gender parity in its composition. The government also appoints a delegate to the council to coordinate between the council and the administration and attends meetings in an advisory capacity.
Since October 4th, 2022, the Council has faced an exceptional situation due to the expiration of the member’s term, the failure to hold new elections, and the exceptional extension of the council’s term by the government for six months, to ensure that the council continues to perform its duties by the Press and Publishing Code . However, during the transitional phase, no elections took place due to disagreements among the unions and professional associations regarding the method to be followed for its renewal. This disagreement was reflected in the debate during the study day organized by the House of Representatives (the first chamber of Parliament) last December on « National Media and Society: Future Challenges and Risks », with the participation of the Minister of Youth, Culture, and Communication, heads of parliamentary groups, institutional actors and professionals in the field of media and press.
The parliamentary groups have proposed alternative measures , to the National Press Council elections, as they have expressed a desire to abandon them through a new amendment to the law. These proposals include replacing elections with appointments by the two most representative bodies . Other suggestions involve appointing the council president by the king , extending the council’s term to five years instead of four , and increasing the number of members from 21 to 23 .
On April 4, 2023, the Council faced a « legal vacuum » after the extension period came expired. To address this issue, the government approved a draft law submitted by the Minister of Culture, Youth and Communication in its government council meeting held on April 13. The draft law proposed transferring the council’s powers to an interim committee in charge of organizing the press and publishing sector. This committee will consist of eight members in addition to the outgoing president of the National Press Council, including the outgoing vice president of the council as its vice president, the outgoing president of the Professional Ethics and Disciplinary Issues Committee, the outgoing president of the Professional Press Card Committee, three members appointed by the Head of Government from among persons known for their expertise in journalism, publishing and media, a judge appointed by the president delegate of the Supreme Council of the Judicial Power, and a representative from the National Council for Human Rights appointed by its president. .
Subsequently, reactions varied between newspaper publishers and journalists, as the Moroccan Federation of Newspaper Publishers and the National Federation for Press, Information and Communication of the Moroccan Labor Union called, in a joint statement, to « freeze the draft law establishing an interim committee to manage the functioning of the press and publishing sector, » describing it as « unconstitutional, arbitrary, and extreme, striking at the independence of the press and the right of journalists to choose their representatives ». Meanwhile, the National Association for Media and Publishers welcomed the government’s approval of the aforementioned draft law, stating that it « aims to rectify the illegal situation that the decisions of the National Press Council will lead to, and guarantees the normal functioning of the press and publishing sectors . »
In a statement, the National Union of Moroccan Journalists « fully supported the initiative to form an interim committee », stating that « addressing the developments related to the National Press Council requires addressing the imbalances experienced in the founding phase and loopholes in the laws regulating journalism, particularly the National Press Council and the Press and Publishing law. » On the other hand, the Moroccan Press Club condemned the « interference in the management of the National Press Council », and argued that the creation of the interim committee is « beyond the general framework of the national legal system. »
The Justice and Development Party and the Unified Socialist Party, both of whom are in opposition, expressed their rejection of the government’s decision. The former called it « regressive and contests the democratic gains of our country , » while the latter criticized « the efforts of some to cling to the representation of journalists and publishers as an excuse to delay necessary changes and reforms in the sector . The Progress and Socialism Party, represented by its Secretary-General, considered the formation of an interim committee « a real disaster and blatant bias ». The head of the group in the House of Representatives announced that « the group will vote against the draft law, which they see as an intervention of the executive branch in the autoregulation of the press , » emphasizing that it is « inconsistent with the democratic principles enshrined in the 2011 Constitution. »
Reporters Without Borders also expressed negative reactions to the interim committee claiming that it « threatens the independence of the profession and raises doubts about the independence and auto-regulation for journalists. » On the other hand, the government believes that the problem lies in « the law regulating the National Council, especially with regard to the body responsible for organizing the council elections. » It also sees that « Article 54 of the law tackles the establishment of the National Press Council and does not specify this body, and therefore the law needs to be reconsidered according to an institutional concept that goes beyond individuals and persons. »

2. Observations on the Establishment of an Interim Committee

The establishment of an interim committee to manage the press and publishing sector is not the first turnaround in the autoregulation of the press. Since its inception, this experience has faced many challenges due to the delay in approving the legislative text for the National Press Council. Between July 29, 2015, the date of the government’s approval of the draft law creating the National Press Council, and April 7, 2016, the date of its publication in the Official Bulletin, the ratification of this important legal text went through several stages. The beginning was by referring it to the House of Representatives on October 28, 2015, which in turn referred it to the Committee on Education, Culture and Communication on November 4, 2015. The draft law was presented to this committee on November 17, 2015, which reviewed its articles and approved it on December 26, 2015. The draft law was then approved in a plenary session of the House of Representatives on December 23, 2015.
After completing the procedures for its ratification in the House of Representatives, it was referred to the House of Councillors on the same day and then referred to the Committee on Education, Cultural and Social Affairs on December 30, 2015, as required by the ratione materiae. On January 6, 2016, the relevant committee completed the study of its provisions and approved it on January 25, 2016. Then, it was approved by the House of Councillors in a plenary session on February 2, 2016. As the House of Councillors introduced a series of amendments, the legal text was referred again to the House of Representatives for a second reading on February 3rd. The relevant committee approved the amendments on the same day and received the approval of the Council in a plenary session on February 9. However, the text remained in the General Secretariat for nearly two months before it was published in the Official Bulletin on April 7, 2016.
However, the notable delay also included the publication of the implementing decrees of this law, which did not come into existence until three years later, specifically in 2019. This includes the decree specifying the procedures of granting and renewing professional press cards , and the decree appointing the government representative to the National Press Council.
The same applies to the elections to form the Council, which were also inexplicably delayed, as they were held on June 22, 2018, after more than two years have passed since the regulating law was in force. Preparations for the elections began on April 2, 2018, with the formation of a supervisory committee for electing representatives of professional journalists and newspaper publishers , as stipulated in Article 54. The committee was composed of a delegated judge appointed by the Supreme Council of the Judicial Power as president, a representative of the Government Authority in charge of Communication, a representative of the National Council for Human Rights, a representative of the Moroccan Bar Associations, a representative of professional journalists union , a representative of newspaper publishers . The National Press Council’s term was completed on October 5, 2018, with the election of its president and vice president.
The mandate of council members is four years, renewable once . In order to carry out its assigned tasks, the council forms five committees, according to Article 12 of its creation law, namely: The Committee on Professional Ethics and Disciplinary Issues, the Professional Press Card Committee, which must be chaired by a professional journalist from among the members of the council, the Training, Study and Cooperation Committee, the Mediation and Arbitration Committee, which must be chaired by a representative of the Supreme Council of the Judicial Power, and the Press Establishments and Sector Rehabilitation Committee, which must be chaired by a newspaper publisher from among the members of the council. The council may, when necessary, establish other thematic committees.
The work of the Committee on Professional Ethics and Disciplinary Issues is organized by the provisions of the Code of Ethics developed by the Council. The committee seeks to respect and maintain the principles of the profession . Meanwhile, the Professional Press Card Committee is responsible for receiving applications for issuing or renewing press cards . The Training, Research, and Cooperation Committee is responsible for preparing thematic reports related to the press sector, and providing advisory opinions requested by the Council . Whereas the Mediation and Arbitration Committee is responsible for resolving professional disputes among journalists and press institutions, as well as professional disputes between individuals falling under the jurisdiction of the council . The Press Establishments and Sector Rehabilitation Committee specializes in examining the various structural, economic, administrative, regulatory, legal, financial, and professional issues related to the future of press institutions, their challenges, constraints, and support provided to them .
Based on the above, three observations can be made about the process and outcomes of the election:
– The inexplicable delay in establishing the National Press Council and the failure to respect the timeframe for the transitional period, which should not have exceeded one year after the issuance of the law, according to Article 56 of the law establishing the Council, but it exceeded two years.

– Adopting two different voting methods raises questions about its purpose, as individual voting was used for publishers and professional journalists.

– The elected and appointed council composition did not comply with the quota system stipulated in Article 4 of the law establishing the Council, with only four women (out of 17 men) among the elected members, representing only 19% of the total members.
The National Press Council was supposed to present a report on its work at the end of its term, but it did not. By evoking its actual inception on October 5, 2018, and by returning to its competencies, which are considered the source of its strength, it becomes clear that there are three main tasks of the Council that are responsible for evaluating its performance: the first is granting the professional press card; Second, to reflect on disciplinary cases related to media institutions and professional journalists who have violated their professional duties, code of ethics, the rules of procedure of the council and other regulations it puts forth; Third, proposing procedures that would develop, qualify and modernize the press and publishing sector.

1. Issuing press cards : the missing outcome

After the council was installed in early 2019, the committee in charge of issuing professional press cards faced a major challenge to operationalize the most important requirements of the law establishing the council, which is granting the professional press cards. At that time, the council did not have a headquarters or human resources, and the decrees relating to the method of issuing and renewing press cards and accredited professional journalist cards were issued only in March 2019, that is, after the period during which journalists were supposed to have obtained their professional cards. Therefore, the Communication Department – Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports received and processed professional card applications, as was previously practiced, and the only tangible change was that the cards bore the signature of the President of the National Press Council. The number of cards delivered for that year (2019) reached 3016 cards . The council did not fully undertake its responsibility in issuing cards until 2020, that is, after it had a headquarters. The committee in charge of issuing the cards was then able to consider a total of 3,673 applications, and approved 3,182 of them .
After the first attempt at issuing professional press cards, the National Press Council engaged in a dialogue with the government’s communication sector to explore the possibility of amending the requirements of the decree to facilitate access to the profession without compromising its value and position in society. Unfortunately, the council did not publicly release the list of journalists who received press cards, only the total number processed and delivered. The most recent census dates back to 2021, when the council announced that it had completed processing all applications for the year, approving 3,394 out of 4,008 applications.
Despite the requirement from professionals for releasing the list of journalists who obtained their cards, the council fell short of fulfilling this expectation. Instead, in 2021, the council claimed to have reached out to officials from the Personal Data Protection Committee to discuss the possibility of publishing the lists for 2020 and 2021, « citing a need for transparency and integrity ». However, the council has yet to announce the results of these consultations or to publish the full lists of journalists who received the press card.

2. Disciplinary cases

Ensuring professional and ethical discipline by addressing disciplinary cases is crucial . The authority of the press is not established through a social contract or a mandate from the people, but rather through adherence to professional ethics and a commitment to serving the public. From the first weeks of its installment, the National Press Council has been focused on developing a code of ethics for this profession. The code was ultimately approved after several meetings and consultations, and it was published in the Official Bulletin on July 29, 2019. However, despite being a priority, the development and publication of the code did not meet the legal deadlines outlined in Article 2 of the law establishing the council, which required the code to be developed and published within a maximum of six months from the council’s inauguration.

In accordance with the law, the Professional Ethics and Disciplinary Issues Committee is responsible for addressing complaints received from individuals and organizations who feel their dignity, honor, and rights have been insulted or defamed. From August 2019 to December 2020, the committee received 40 complaints , but no disciplinary measures were announced, leading to questions about the delay in handling these cases. The council did announce the resolution of some complaints in cooperation with the offending newspapers, which only required the publication of factual information about the complaining parties. However, the committee must publish the outcomes of cases it has addressed. The council’s most recent report on this matter covers the first nine months of 2021, with a total of 36 complaints . Unfortunately, the council’s performance in this regard remains negative, with continued violations of professional ethics by media platforms.
It is worth noting that the National Press Council has the power to automatically consider disciplinary cases if requested by the majority of its members, as stipulated in Article 39 of the law establishing it. However, the Council has rarely announced that a case has been referred to the Ethics Committee, raising concerns about its selectivity in dealing with violations committed by media platforms. One of the few instances where such action was taken was in the case of a website that “stigmatized” national football team player Zakaria Aboukhlal . Meanwhile, the Council’s Professional Ethics Committee has compiled a report on professional practices during the COVID-19 pandemic, which revealed multiple violations of the Code of Professional Ethics, albeit unsystematic . The Council had previously condemned some journalistic websites for exploiting the pandemic for commercial gain .

 

3. Measures to develop this sector

The rehabilitation and development of press institutions is crucial for protecting the press, ensuring its sustainability, and strengthening its societal roles. As such, the National Press Council should take a leading role in proposing solutions to address the significant structural crisis facing the Moroccan press. The Press Establishments Committee has completed a comprehensive field research report, which highlights the complexity and overlapping dimensions of the crisis , as well as the unclear vision and lack of control over the professional future of the sector . While this report provides a platform to advocate for the rehabilitation of press enterprises, media organizations continue to face the looming threat of bankruptcy, which undermines their ability to serve as a vital democratic construct and uphold multilateralism .

4. Ten problems threatening the auto-regulation

Amid the noted shortcomings in the performance of the outgoing National Press Council, the prospect of auto-regulation in the press faces a formidable challenge with the government’s approval of a draft law that outlines the establishment of an interim committee to take over the duties of the National Press Council. This new committee would be responsible for conducting a comprehensive assessment of the current situation of the press and publishing sector, as well as proposing measures aimed at supporting its organizational structure within a nine-month timeframe from the date of appointment of its members. It would also be responsible for the preparation of the elections of new council members, ensuring that all electoral procedures are conducted in strict accordance with prevailing legislative and regulatory frameworks .
However, the establishment of the interim committee raises several problematics in terms of its composition and agenda, which can be summarized in ten points:
– The idea of auto-regulation of the press contradicts the principle of appointment, particularly if it is linked to the executive authority. As a result, the government’s creation of the interim committee for the management of press and publication functioning marks a step back from the progress achieved in Morocco’s auto-regulation of the press since 2016. It is worth noting that auto-regulation is the most effective regulatory system that ensures maximum freedom for journalists .
– The composition of the interim committee can be seen as a mere extension of the outgoing council, albeit with carefully selected members. The committee is composed of the former president of the National Press Council in his new role as president of the committee, the former vice-president of the outgoing council as the vice-president of the committee, and two other members from the outgoing « Professional Ethics and Disciplinary Issues » and « Professional Press Card » committees. These members bear the responsibility for not holding elections to renew the council, advocating to the government and parliament in order to review the law establishing the council before the end of their term. They are also responsible for not presenting the outcome of the council’s work – like their other colleagues – in four years.
– Despite the government’s repeated assertion that the interim committee goes beyond individuals , the selection of certain members of the outgoing council to be members in the interim committee raises concerns about the underlying motives. Of particular concern is the fact that the committee includes the outgoing council’s president, vice-president, and the chairpersons of two committees, who are affiliated with the Authority of Publishers and Press Syndicate, neither of whom have expressed support for holding elections on schedule. Furthermore, the committee did not include members of unions and professional bodies that oppose the amendment of the laws regulating the profession before the elections.
– The motives for keeping two out of five committee chairpersons (professional ethics and disciplinary issues and professional press card committees) in office seem incoherent, because the work of other committees is just as important. The Training, Study and Cooperation Committee, Mediation and Arbitration Committee, and the Press Establishments and Sector Rehabilitation Committee play pivotal roles in preparing thematic reports related to the press sector, as well as advisory opinions that are requested from the Council . They also discuss various structural, economic, administrative, organizational, legal, financial and professional issues related to this sector and its future .
– Entrusting the interim committee made up mostly of members of the outgoing Council to come up with a new solution the problems in the sector is considered a waste of time. This is especially true because they’re required to carry out the same tasks stipulated in the law establishing the National Press Council, as these members have already worked for four years and six months without providing any solutions.
– The government’s interpretation of the law establishing the National Press Council and the absence of mechanisms to hold elections is arbitrary. Article 54 of that law doesn’t specify that it’s for constituent elections only. Additionally, Article 9 refers to the previous article in its stipulation of what must be done if the council cannot perform its duties. It states that the committee mentioned in Article 54 should oversee the creation of an interim committee to carry out the council’s tasks until the installation of the new council, and that is within a maximum of six months.
– The Head of Government’s appointment of three members to the interim committee threatens its independence. The concept of auto-regulation in the press is based on the right of journalists and media professionals to organize their work democratically and independently from the executive authority, while respecting the freedom of the press guaranteed by Article 28 of the Moroccan constitution. This freedom cannot be restricted by any form of prior censorship.
– Granting the interim committee the authority to prepare for a new system for the council , as stated in the memorandum of the draft law establishing it, contradicts its composition, which does not reflect diversity or multilateralism in the media field. To achieve this goal, an independent committee or one that includes representatives from various stripes of professional institutions and unions should have been formed.
– The limited number of members in the interim committee, which does not exceed nine members compared to 21 members in the previous council, raises concerns about the way it will manage the issuance of professional press cards and handling complaints, especially as each task may be assigned to a single member, which could lead to arbitrary decisions, despite assigning the outgoing chairpersons of the committees. If these tasks are assigned to members appointed by the head of government, it would undermine the principle of independence required in granting access to the profession and disciplining journalists who violate the code of ethics.
– Not specifying the laws that the interim committee will evaluate within nine months, as required by Article 4 of the law establishing it, and not clarifying if this includes the press and publishing law and the law that serves as the fundamental system for professional journalists , poses a significant issue. This is particularly significant as amending all these laws is time-consuming and necessitates community involvement, given that the press and publishing law is a means of exerting influence on press. In this divided context, worries intensify about the potential retraction of some of the achievements, especially since tracking the process of amending the press and publishing law since independence reveals varying approaches to it depending on the circumstances and context. It should be noted that the benefits of the 2016 press and publishing law outweigh its drawbacks.

Conclusion : Ways out of the dilemma

The auto-regulation of the press in Morocco is at a dead end, which could have been overcome by organizing elections to renew the mandate of the members of the National Press Council. However, given the extreme divide among professional organizations and unions due to the government’s approval of a draft law to establish an interim committee to replace the National Press Council, this paper presents solutions to the dilemma revolving around the principles of multilateralism, elections and governance.
It is necessary to adhere to elections and avoid appointment, even if it is within the power of professional and union bodies, as it violates the independence of the press.
– Ensuring a healthy media society requires upholding the principle of diversity of opinions and avoiding the government’s bias towards any particular viewpoint. It is essential for the government to involve all parties in protection of auto-regulation while providing constitutional and legislative guarantees that prevent any interference in the National Press Council’s mandate.
– The Council must be allowed to fulfill its primary function of safeguarding press freedom, upholding professional ethics, and protecting society’s right to access information, knowledge, and education.
When it comes to governance, it is crucial to prevent the National Press Council from becoming a source of material temptation. Journalists’ representation must remain non-profit in order to preserve its significance. Granting excessive compensation to Council members can lead to membership being seen as a means to achieve profit rather than as a way to safeguard press independence. Therefore, it is important to emphasize the compensation outlined in the Council’s internal regulations, such as transport and accommodation expenses related to Council activities , as well as compensation for actual contributions to its events and committees. It should be noted that this compensation is only a fraction of what journalists earn from their media companies. However, it is worth mentioning that the regulations do not specify the monthly compensation for the Council’s president. Concealing this information from the public is a violation of journalists’ and citizens’ right to information.

Mohammed Karim Boukhssass

Mohammed Karim Boukhssass

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