|Official Country Name:||Islamic Republic of Mauritania|
|Region (Map name):||Africa|
|Language(s):||Hasaniya Arabic, Pular, Soninke, Wolof, French|
Background & General Characteristics
Mauritania is a primarily desert country in northwest Africa, situated south of the Western Sahara, southwest of Algeria, west and north of Mali, and north of Senegal. The country's western border is the Atlantic Ocean. The capital of Mauritania is Noakchott. A country of 2.5 million people, Mauritania's population is composed of Arab Berbers in the north and darker-skinned Africans in the south. Many of the people are nomads. The language groups in the country include Arabic (the official language), French, and local languages. Most Mauritanians practice Islam.
Maaouiya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya is the president of Mauritania, a highly centralized, constitutional Islamic republic with a strong presidency. Although the 1991 constitution provided for a civilian government with an executive branch, senate, and national assembly, President Taya exerts considerable political power over the rest of the government. He came to power in 1984 as the leader of a military junta and was officially elected president of the republic in 1992 during the country's first multi-party election under the new constitution. Taya was reelected in 1997 by 90 percent of the vote, winning out over four other candidates in an election boycotted by a five-party coalition, the Opposition Front. General and local elections held in October 2001 were won by the president's Republican Democratic Party, enabling President Taya to keep firm control over Mauritanian politics and governance.
Newspapers in Mauritania are tightly controlled by the state, which reviews all copy to be published two or three days in advance of the publication date. Five copies of all newspaper issues must be presented to the Ministries of Justice and of the Interior for this pre-publication review. Material deemed insulting to Islam or a risk to national security cannot be published. All newspapers must be registered with the Ministry of the Interior.
The principal newspapers in the country are in French and Arabic, and a wide variety of newspapers exists. Over three hundred newspapers and journals are registered with the government but only about a third of these publish on a regular basis; some have never published an issue. Only about twenty-five private newspapers publish regularly, most of them weeklies printing a maximum of three thousand copies for any one edition.
Key newspapers include Al'Sha'b , a government-owned paper published in Arabic; Horizon , also government owned, but published in French; Journal Officiel , the official gazette published in French; Le Calame , appearing in both Arabic and French; l'Eveil-Hebdo , a French bi-weekly; and Rajoul Echaree , published in Arabic and French.
Those campaigning to end the practice of slavery in Mauritania, which was officially stopped in 1981 but purported to still exist, despite government denials, have sometimes found it difficult to publicize their cause and their campaign activities via the media. As Amnesty International stated in their 2002 annual report, "Human rights organizations, including those campaigning against slavery, remained illegal, and freedom of expression remained limited." In September 2001 the European Parliament passed a resolution calling for improvements in specific human rights situations in Mauritania, including an end to slavery and greater guarantees for freedom of expression. In November 2001 independent journalist Gilles Ammar and his cameraman were expelled from Mauritania, allegedly for attempting to produce a report on slavery.
Mauritania's economy is based on fishing and mining. The principal exports are fish and fish products, iron ore, and gold. The average per capita annual income is only about US$370.
Certain financial benefits apply to those who publish mass media. Publishers and printers of newspapers, journals, and privately printed books do not have to pay government taxes on the materials they use to produce their publications.
The Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and of the press. However, government control of the media involves pre-publication censorship made possible by Article 11 of the Constitution, which states that content and media can be banned if they threaten national sovereignty, security, or unity or the territorial integrity of Mauritania or if they insult Islam or foreign heads of state.
Censorship is a problem for journalists in Mauritania, though conditions for the press appeared somewhat better in 2001 than in the previous year, based on the annual report of Reporters Without Borders. Papers produced by non-governmental organizations and by the private press are more open in their criticism of government officials and policies and of the opposition parties than are the state-owned papers. As the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor expressed it in their annual report for January through December 2001, "Antigovernment tracts, newsletters, and petitions circulated widely in Nouakchott and other towns."
The U.S. State Department reported that in December 2000 one weekly newspaper, Al Alam , was banned. In 2001 seven issues of various journals were seized by the authorities as objectionable material under the censorship laws. In July 2002 an issue of Le Renovateur , one of the country's bi-monthly newspapers, was seized by the Ministry of the Interior, Posts and Telecommunications despite the fact that the issue had been properly registered. The seizure was likely related to an article it contained on rising prices of essential goods and on foreign exchange, according to the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) in Accra, Ghana. MFWA issued an alert on August 9, 2002, requesting that letters be sent to Mauritania's president and the Minister of the Interior to protest frequent seizures of newspapers in the country.
Besides the requirement that newspapers must all register with the government, all journalists must carry government-issued press cards to participate in official press events.
The general atmosphere surrounding the press in Mauritania appears to be cautiously positive but restrictive, particularly in terms of the continuing prohibition of private radio broadcasting licenses. Moreover, state-controlled media voice views that favor the government, so it cannot be said that Mauritania enjoys a very large measure of press freedom.
One example of government interference with journalistic reporting was the detention and questioning in July 2001 of reporter Mohammed Lemine Ould Mahmoudi, a contributor to the weekly Le Calame and managing editor of the weekly Hasad Al-Ousbou'é . Mahmoudi was arrested due to suspicions that he knew something about who had produced anti-government graffiti and who had committed acts of sabotage during an official visit to one of the country's regions. After a few hours of questioning, Mahmoudi was released.
Attitude toward Foreign Media
Mauritanian correspondents for foreign broadcasters have occasionally had problems with government repression. For example, in April 2001 the Minister of Communications temporarily banned journalist Mohammed Lemine Ould Bah, Mauritania's correspondent for Radio France International and Radio Monte Carlo, from practicing journalism and working with these broadcasters after Bah reported on conflict between Mauritania and its southwestern neighbor, Senegal.
Mauritanians can access foreign television programs from France and Arab countries through satellite receivers and dish antennae. Although the government had interfered with certain broadcasts of Radio France International and the Qatar-based Arabic television station, Al-Jazeera, due to programs of theirs that had been critical of the Mauritanian government, no such interference reportedly occurred in 2001, according to the U.S. State Department's report on human rights practices.
Mauritania's official news agency is the Mauritanian News Agency.
The state owns all domestic television and radio broadcasting services, whose coverage typically provides a favorable picture of the government. The political opposition has limited access to radio broadcasting, although during the last election the opposition candidates were allowed much greater access to the media than at other times. Foreign broadcasts from France, Arab countries, and other locations, such as Africa No. 1 from Gabon can be received via FM in the country. However, private radio stations within Mauritania are unable to obtain broadcast licenses. Domestic rebroadcasting on FM stations of Radio France International programs is permitted, enabling listeners in Mauritania to hear news of the opposition parties.
The national broadcasting network is the Office de Radiodiffusion-Television de Mauritanie (ORTM). Mauritanian TV broadcasts throughout the country on one channel but can be picked up by satellite in eleven regional capitals. Its programs are produced in Arabic, French, and various local languages. Radio programs by the national broadcaster are transmitted on FM and short wave and by Arabsat 2B satellite. Radio France International is transmitted on FM in Nouakchott, the capital city. No domestic radio stations exist, due to government refusal to grant licenses to private radio broadcasters within the country. However, radio is the most popular form of media in the country.
Electronic News Media
About 300 persons accessed the Internet regularly in 1999. Five domestic Internet service providers operate in Mauritania, unrestricted by the government. Internet connections were improved in 1999 to make Internet access available in Nouadhibou, the country's principal commercial city. The Internet is now available there and in five regional capitals. Internet sites are maintained by some of the privately owned newspapers in the country, and in 2001 these sites were able to operate without government censorship.
Although Mauritania has a ways to come before its press can be called free, some positive conditions appear to exist in the relations between the press and the state, such as permissiveness regarding Internet service provision and the reception of foreign television and radio broadcasts in the country. However, the amount of media control exerted by the government, particularly in terms of government bans on private radio broadcasting and the required government pre-publication reviews of press materials, is restrictive compared with basic international standards for free expression and public debate and dissent. Hopefully, a reduction in government tensions over border disputes with Senegal involving the use of the Senegal River, mixed with domestic and international efforts to promote more multi-party democratic political activity, will eventually change this situation and make Mauritania a more positive environment for journalistic practice.
- 1997: President Taya reelected with 90 percent of the vote.
- 1999: Internet access made available in Nouadhibou, the country's principal commercial city.
- December 2000: Al Alam , a weekly newspaper, is banned and stops publishing.
- April 2001: The Minister of Communications temporarily bans journalist Mohammed Lemine Ould Bah, Mauritania's correspondent for Radio France International and Radio Monte Carlo, from practicing journalism in the country.
- September 2001: The European Parliament passes a resolution calling for improved human rights in Mauritania, including an end to slavery and better guarantees for freedom of expression.
- October 2001: General and local elections won by Republican Democratic Party, President Taya's party, allowing him to stay in firm control of politics and the government in Mauritania.
- November 2001: Independent journalist Gilles Ammar and his cameraman are expelled from Mauritania, allegedly for attempting to produce a report on slavery.
- August 2002: The Media Foundation for West Africa issues an alert on August 9, 2002, requesting that letters be sent to Mauritania's president and the Minister of the Interior to protest frequent seizures of newspapers.
Amnesty International. "Mauritania." Amnesty International Report 2002 . London: Amnesty International, 2002. Available from web.amnesty.org/ .
BBC Monitoring. "Country profile: Mauritania." Reading, UK: British Broadcasting Corporation, 2002. Available from www.news.bbc.co.uk .
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. Department of State. "Mauritania." Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2001 . Washington, DC: Bureau of Public Affairs, U.S. Department of State, 2002. Available from www.state.gov/ .
Committee to Protect Journalists. "Mauritania." Attacks on the Press in 2001: Africa 2001 . New York, NY: CPJ, 2002. Available from www.cpj.org/attacks01/mideast01/mauritania.html .
Media Foundation for West Africa. "Another Newspaper Publication Seized." Press release. Accra, Ghana, August 9, 2002. Available from www.allafrica.com/stories/ .
Reporters Without Borders. "Mauritania." Africa Annual Report 2002 . Paris, France: Reporters sans frontiéres, 2002. Available from www.rsf.org/ .
Barbara A. Lakeberg-Dridi