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06RABAT2286 2006-12-19 15:42:00 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Rabat
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1. (C) Summary: The Government of Morocco (GOM) is
considering a new law that would for the first time formally
regulate polling and public opinion research. A copy of the
draft bill obtained by the Embassy imposes a requirement that
all public opinion polls be vetted and approved in advance by
a government committee. The bill also establishes three
off-limits issues for polling: religion, "territorial
integrity" (read Western Sahara), and the monarchy. If the
final version of the bill adheres to the general contours of
the draft, this will be a set-back for freedom of expression
and political openness. The Embassy is flagging its concerns
about this potential step backwards with senior GOM
officials. End Summary.

2. (C) Until now, public opinion research has never been
formally regulated in Morocco. In the past, groups and
organizations conducting polling have exercised a
significant degree of self-censorship, generally avoiding,
but sometimes gently nudging, red-line issues. Pollsters
have also commonly sought approval from the Ministry of
Interior (MOI) before conducting polls on potentially
sensitive issues to cover themselves, even in the absence of
a legal requirement that they do so.

3. (C) However, draft law 60/2006, a copy of which has been
obtained by the Embassy, would impose formal legal
restrictions on the conduct of public opinion research. The
most significant provision of the bill is the establishment
of a governmental Opinion Polls Commission (OPC), chaired by
a cabinet minister (the Secretary-General of the Government),
which includes representatives of the Prime Minister, the
Ministries of Interior, Justice, Industry and Trade, and
Information, and other (still unidentified) experts. If the
bill passes as drafted, any group or organization seeking to
conduct polling would need to apply to the OPC in advance
for permission.

4. (C) In addition, the bill establishes three off-limits
issues for polling: religion, "territorial integrity" (read
Western Sahara), and the monarchy. The motto "God, Country,
and King," posted at government installations across the
country, forms a sort of sacred trinity in Moroccan official
discourse. The bill also establishes a 15-day blackout
period before elections in which political polling data may
not be published or discussed in the media. The draft
establishes a penalty of up to one year in jail and/or a fine
of up to 500,000 dirhams (about USD 59,000) for violators of
the law.

5. (C) The bill has struck a sour note with contacts in
Moroccan civil society, and particularly in journalist
quarters, with fears expressed about the implications of the
bill for political openness. In a December 15 conversation
with us, Abdullah Ben Abdelsalam, Vice President of the
Moroccan Association of Human Rights, ridiculed the GOM's
assertion that the new polling law would "protect the dignity
of the elections process." "No one has ever questioned the
'dignity' of the many interest-driven claims politicians make
about that the public thinks and wants.... It seems as if
free public opinion research is a challenge to the monopoly
of others to define public opinion," he told us.

6. (C) Similarly, Younes Moujahid of the Moroccan Press Union
told us "the banning or undue obstruction of public opinion
violates too many rights. Restrictions on polls prohibit
(assessments of) public opinion," a central pillar of
democracy, he argued. Moroccan journalist Abdelrahim Ariri
predicted to us that the GOM would only permit polls
conducted by pollsters loyal to the state, and journalist
Driss Ksikes vowed to us that he would "not accept" the new
law as currently drafted, opining that it would impose new
redlines on Moroccan media.

7. (C) GOM officials and observers note that the law is
modeled on a 1977 French law with similar outlines, while at
the same time conceding that the Moroccan draft is more
sweeping in scope. The French Press Attache, in a recent
conversation with the IO, confirmed this point, but described
the draft as a shot across the bow of Morocco's more
aggressive journalists and predicted that, at the end of the
day, the law would not move to final passage.

8. (C) Comment: The proximity of parliamentary elections,
which will be staged sometime before October 2007, was likely
a major consideration for the GOM in crafting this bill. The

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GOM may have also been prompted in part by the controversial
poll conducted by the International Republican Institute
(IRI) and leaked to the media in the summer of 2006, which
showed public support for the Islamist Justice and
Development Party at 47 percent, far ahead of any of the
parties which form the governing coalition. IRI's poll was
misinterpreted by many observers, including media
commentators, who mistook it (disingenuously in some cases)
as a USG endorsement of the Islamist party or an unwarranted
USG incursion into Moroccan politics.

9. (C) If the bill, drafted by the MOI, remains largely
intact after parliamentary debate, it will represent a step
backward in Morocco's political reform process, shackling or
at least constraining reliable assessments of public opinion
at a key moment in Morocco's political calendar. While some
regulation of polling may be appropriate in Morocco or any
country, an overly restrictive law, with draconian penalties,
would not be in keeping with the GOM's laudable efforts in
recent years to open up the political system. The Charge
flagged our concerns about the bill in a December 18 meeting
with the Prime Minister (septel) and we will be taking other
opportunities in the near future to raise the issue with
other senior GOM officials. End Comment.
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