Freedom of press is alive and well in Mauritania, even if journalists in the capital Nouakchott face many complex challenges. The year 2007 was distinguished by a rare experience in Africa : balanced coverage of all political players during the presidential election campaign.
Mauritania has been through testing times since the 2005 coup, going through an agreed democratic transition, a constitutional referendum, municipal elections and fair and open legislative and presidential elections... and a return to civil liberties, including press freedom. Even though much work remains to be done for journalists in Nouakchott the situation is much better than it was.
Reporters Without Borders carried out monitoring in February and March 2007 of news coverage of the presidential campaign by Mauritania’s public media, as part of its role in supporting the transition which began in October 2005. The presidential poll was chosen because it is regulated by electoral law, guaranteeing equal media access to all competing political forces. In addition, as a public service financed by the state, it has a duty to act in an exemplary manner in election periods. At the end of the monitoring, the organisation hailed the sustained efforts of the public media to respect the complex rules of fairness and balance in covering news from the different presidential candidates. It was a challenge met thanks to the work of the regulatory body, the management and journalists working for radio, television, the written press and news agencies.
Leaving to one side any imbalance in the figures, which was slight, Reporters Without Borders was quick to praise the commitment and effort of public media management in such a sensitive historic period and hailed the pragmatism and constructive spirit of the new media regulatory body, the High Authority for Press and Broadcasting (HAPA).
Since the fall of the dictator Maaouiya Ould Taya, in August 2005, Mauritania’s press problems became less serious but more complicated. The former regime, which sought to undermine the independent press, which proved a thorn in its side, favoured newspapers whose management had few scruples about corruption and blackmail and whose journalists were more in search of bribes than news. Reporters Without Borders has always told the Mauritanian authorities that prison was not the correct response and that it should help the “serious” press to survive in a tough market.
The brief imprisonment of Abdel Fettah Ould Ebeidna, managing editor of the Arabic-language al-Aqsa, sent a negative signal to the Mauritanian press, when the country was facing a far-reaching political-criminal scandal. The journalist, head of a publication with often doubtful ethical practices, spent four days in prison, on the basis of a defamation suit brought against the newspaper by businessman Mohamed Ould Bouammatou. He had been named in the daily’s 16 May edition in connection with a massive cocaine trafficking case uncovered overnight on 1-2 May by police in Nouadhibou, northern Mauritania and implicating the son of a former president, a businessman and several sons of influential figures. The article, which mixed up barely supported claims and news in the conditional tense, said that Mohamed Ould Bouammatou had been charged in the case. Some Mauritanian journalists told Reporters Without Borders that the articles attacking Mohamed Ould Bouamatou had been ordered and paid for by a clan rival in order to discredit him. Ould Ebeidna was sentenced on 7 November to one year in prison, a 50,000-Ouguiya fine (170 Euros) and 300 million Ouguiyas (one million Euros) in damages. The journalist who was currently out of the country, in a Gulf state, did not serve his sentence.
Another problem in Mauritania is that the security forces have little enthusiasm for according any respect to the press. And family or tribal influences sometimes protect those responsible for press freedom violations from being punished. This was the case, on 16 August when Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Moghdad, journalist on public Radio Mauritania, was at the health ministry covering a visit by Prime Minister Zein Ould Zeidane. He left the room for a few moments and as he tried to return to the conference room was intercepted by the head of the prime minister’s guard, Zein Ould Soueydatt. Even though the journalist had his press card with him, Zein Ould Soueydatt ordered his men to beat him. The assault was condemned by the HAPA which said “no circumstances can justify resorting to physical force against a journalist doing their job”. A few days later, the journalist’s lawyer revealed that on the day after the assault, the prosecutor of the republic had refused to record a complaint on behalf of his client, on the grounds that his file was incomplete. The lawyer on 21 August collected the requested documents, including medical certificates, and attempted to lodge a complaint for a second time. The prosecutor’s office still refused to accept it.
However, clan loyalties can also help in reaching a compromise. Sidi Mohamed Ould Ebbe, editor of the privately-owned daily El Bedil Athalith, was on 18 August charged with “defamation” following a complaint from the president’s wife, which had been made four days earlier. Her complaint related to two articles which said she had used her position to seek funding for a humanitarian organisation she chaired. The editor told the press that he was “prepared to co-operate”, while deploring the interpretation put on the two articles, which he said “were not intended to harm the first lady”. In fact an understanding was arrived at and the case was closed.