Moroccans cut off from YouTube

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RABAT, Morocco -- Internet users in Morocco unable to access the video-sharing Web site YouTube since last week expressed fears Tuesday that the government has stepped up its campaign to restrict independent media.

Moroccan bloggers were surprised to discover they could no longer open YouTube on Friday and promptly speculated in online forums about whether the site had been censured and, if so, why.

Najib Omrani, a spokesman for state-controlled telecommunications provider Maroc Telecom, which supplies most Internet access in Morocco, blamed the problem on a technical glitch but could not explain why it affected only Google Inc.'s YouTube.

Moroccan government spokesman Nabil Benabdallah said he was unable to comment on telecommunications issues. San Bruno, Calif.-based YouTube had no immediate comment Tuesday.

Some Internet users were skeptical that a technical problem was to blame and noted that the site went down after users posted videos critical of Morocco's treatment of the people of Western Sahara, a territory that Morocco took control of in 1975 after Spain, the colonial power, withdrew.

"They've clearly blocked YouTube," said university student Abdelhakim Albarkani, parked in a Rabat cyber cafe doing his economics homework. "I'm worried, because YouTube allowed us to see things the state newspapers and television won't show."

At his accession to the throne in 1999, Moroccans hoped King Mohamed VI would usher in political and social freedoms absent under his father, the late King Hassan II.

But key issues remain off-limits for public discussion, with Moroccan law still forbidding criticism of the monarchy, Islam and Morocco's occupation of Western Sahara.

Many bloggers say a recent upsurge of YouTube videos criticizing Morocco's rule in Western Sahara may have spooked government censors.

Over the past month Morocco has cracked down on students and activists from the territory, with police injuring and arresting dozens as they broke up pro-independence demonstrations. Protesters have posted dozens of videos of these and earlier clashes on YouTube.

The most popular, with around 2,500 views over the past month, purports to show police violently cudgeling a group of Saharawi women protesting in Laayoune, Western Sahara's main city. It was posted last December.

The government has lately tried to stifle such public discussion. In recent years, journalists have been hit with prison sentences, heavy fines and sometimes driven into exile for having dared broach Western Sahara and other subjects.

A report this month by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists listed Morocco as one of 10 worst backsliders on press freedom.

Authorities have largely refrained from tampering with the Internet. But telecommunications authorities recently clamped down, blocking access to the online mapping tool Google Earth for much of 2006, as well as to sites promoting Western Sahara independence.

Internet use has flourished in Morocco since high-speed access became available in 2004. Tech-savvy Moroccans have started blogs and Web sites, and the Internet is now the scene of lively debate on many topics off-limits to the country's mainstream media.
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