BY PERRY DEMARCHE
RABAT, Morocco — Danielle Douglas, an anthropology student at the University of Rochester, is about to present her senior thesis on self-censorship among Moroccan journalists. She spent several weeks reporting on how the construction of the Noor solar plant in Ouarzazate failed to provide locals with jobs. In writing this article, Douglas experienced firsthand the challenges of press censorship facing journalists in Morocco.
Her thesis, “Say it in a Hidden Way: A Culture of Self-Censorship and Subversion Among Journalists in Morocco,” represents a combination of her anthropological education with her journalism experience. She will present at the University of Rochester on May 4.
Douglas, 21, participated in the School of International Training’s Field Studies in Journalism and New Media study abroad program during the Spring 2016 semester. Douglas explained that she did not want to be published initially, but changed her mind after meeting the people impacted by the solar plant.
“I felt like it was a story that needed to be told and needed to be published. It’d be almost harmful for people not to hear the story,” she said. Al Jazeera published Douglas’s article in early February.
Despite the success of her article, Douglas says the writing process exposed her to the challenges of doing journalism in Morocco. She recalls interviewing seven individuals in Ouarzazate when officials came in the conference room and asked for her passport. To her surprise, the officials escorted her and her photojournalism partner out of town. Douglas described the scenario as “one of the moments of paranoia where we understood the mental stress for journalists in the country.”
The incident made Douglas realize just how many topics are difficult for the press to cover in Morocco. She learned about the major “Red Lines,” or the topics — namely the King, Islam, and Morocco’s territorial integrity – that journalists cannot critique. Douglas found that it was difficult for journalists to even write about topics such as agriculture products, fishing companies or sports teams because of the financial ties that these entities have with the monarchy.
Douglas was torn between wanting to preserve individuals’ anonymity, as they were being openly critical of the government-funded solar plant, and also wanting to keep her story factual.
She explained, “Even though people said we could use their names when interviewing them, there was this fear that someone was going to get in trouble because of what we were writing”, adding that the process is a question of “counterbalancing how much of a role ethics should play in your writing.”
These ethical questions exposed Douglas to a new culture of journalism that inspired the central question of her thesis: how a culture of self-censorship has developed around the “Red Lines”. “There are just certain topics people inherently understand they shouldn’t talk about,” Douglas explained. “And there are ways they subvert this.”
Following her reporting work for her article, Douglas spent three weeks interviewing several journalists about censorship and how they navigate press culture in Morocco. This fieldwork contributed to Douglas’s nearly 60-page anthropology thesis.
She said foreign students in Morocco have to be willing to alter the way they practice journalism based on guidance from Moroccan journalists. “If you’re hesitant, you won’t be able to become as immersed in the culture” Douglas said. “It aligned a lot with what I learn in anthropology: you have to go into any situation wholeheartedly.”
Douglas’s ability to immerse herself in Morocco’s journalism culture allowed her to better understand censorship as a cultural system and guided her research as an anthropologist.
Despite the challenges of doing journalism abroad, Douglas said the most important lesson she learned was the ability “to overcome what made me uncomfortable and to treat the process as a cultural experience”— which she said just reaffirms what studying cultural anthropology has taught in her undergraduate career.