Berber TV channel promises new voice for Morocco

February 10th, 2010

Morocco will launch its first Berber-language TV channel next month, promising to give a voice to the north African kingdom’s most isolated regions. Berbers, who call themselves Amazigh or “Free Ones”, inhabited north Africa for thousands of years before the Arabs brought Islam to the region in the seventh century. Their culture lives on in mountainous hinterlands where poverty and neglect have hardened suspicion of outsiders and spawned an urban movement that campaigns for Amazigh rights.

Many in the Arabic-speaking middle class that led Morocco to independence in 1956 saw attempts to promote Amazigh language and culture as a threat to national unity. Today Arabic remains the official language and the constitution does not mention the Amazigh.

Yet the government seems more willing than before to promote Morocco’s cultural diversity. The director of the new state-funded channel, Mohamed Mamad, says it will push beyond Amazigh programming that often involved folk music and dancing to offer an independent voice. “Our watchword is proximity,” he said. “Our news programmes will be closer to people’s concerns… We have the resources and the manpower to go to places that no one else goes.”

If he succeeds, Moroccan state TV could win back market share from pan-Arab satellite channels that have gained millions of viewers across north Africa by tackling controversial subjects in a livelier tone than straight-laced national media. “The level of televised political debate in Morocco has declined,” said Amazigh rights campaigner Moha Arehal. “The new channel’s programming looks promising and implies it will tackle all Amazigh current affairs. But we’ll have to wait and see.”