after a military coup that ended nearly 20 years of authoritarian rule,
Mauritanians went to the polls and voted in what became one of the
first tests of the new public media. And while some monitors have hailed public media's success in providing
neutral and balanced coverage, others are left cautious to proclaim
triumph of a functioning press as the country continues to face trials
and adversities in the aftermath of a complex history.
coverage that lasted from 24 February to 25 March was monitored by
press freedom advocates Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The Paris
based NGO commended what they called the Mauritanian media's continuous
efforts to respect the rules of fairness and equality in their
reporting on the candidates despite minor setbacks.
"Overall, Reporters Without Borders is satisfied with
the way the campaign was covered by the public media and it hails the
way journalists and editors working in the state broadcast media,
newspapers and news agency rose to the challenge of providing
Mauritanians with balanced and neutral coverage of an historic
election," RSF said.
The first round of elections saw slightly more coverage
for the leading candidates despite apportioned individual candidate
spots by the High Authority for Press and Broadcasting (HAPA). State
media tried to correct the slight imbalance that they attributed to the
fact that minor candidates had fewer campaign activities by reducing
leading candidates' airtime.
During the second round monitoring, minor alerts came
when ex-cabinet minister and presidential candidate Ould Cheikh
Abdellahi received more airtime than opposition Ould Daddah. Because
the electoral code makes no provision for official campaigning after
the election, two minutes of airtime was granted to every losing
candidate each time they came out in support of Abdellahi, amounting to
considerably more airtime for Abdellahi.
HAPA noted these imbalances and Radio de Mauritanie
tried to compensate for the imbalances the following week by giving
much more time to Daddah than Abdellahi. The two candidates then
participated in a face-to-face debate broadcast live 22 March on TVM
and on radio, in which speaking time of each was controlled HAPA and
equality was observed.
"Respect for the rules of fairness and equality is a
complex exercise that was carried out relatively well by the
Mauritanian public media. Beyond the imbalances in the figures, which
are not spectacular, Reporters Without Borders would like to pay
tribute to the good will and efforts undertaken by public media
executives and editors during this historic and sensitive time, as well
as the HAPA's pragmatism and constructive approach," RSF stated.
The monitoring of elections by Reporters Without
Borders included the electoral coverage of the public media, including
Télévision de Mauritanie, Radio de Mauritanie, the Horizons and Chaab
daily newspapers and the Agence Mauritanienne d'Information from 24
February until elections closed and the winner was announced.
But the public press was not the only one reporting the
elections, and not everyone was as optimistic about the state of the
media. With the social, historical, and cultural complexities
surrounding the media in this emerging country, this comes as no
George Kazolias Professor of Journalism at the American
University of Paris and Senior Producer for RFO/AiTV, spoke in a
different tone. Kazolias, who trained Mauritanian journalists in
Mauritania as part of an American sponsored program entitled "Roles and
Responsibilities of the Press in a Democracy" from 5 February to 8
February 2007, was less optimistic as Reporters Without Borders. The
conference addressed 20 journalists from the independent written
French-language press, with the purpose of "responding to a critical
need in a country of developing democracy: to assist in fostering a
free and responsible press." With experience and dialogue with
Mauritanian journalists under his belt, he commented on the
difficulties faced in creating a well functioning press.
"Journalists don't have anything to reference to, and
freedom of press is new," he explained, "There is no public, over 40
percent are illiterate."
One of Kazolias' main concerns for Mauritanian
journalists covering the elections was that many would remain "Pens for
Hire," a term used to describe politicians payment to journalists to
propagate their agenda. This, he said, had a history in Mauritania.
Another problem he noted is the fact that even paper
was hard to come by, with its price in Mauritania among one of the most
expensive in the world.
The situation nonetheless is complex in Mauritania, and many difficulties persist that make journalism difficult in the country.
"Things are decided in a 'salon' system, coming out of
the nomadic tradition where they discuss and decide in that fashion,"
he explained. This, he said, was what Mauritanians were accustomed to,
so an attempt to bring western style democracy would not happen
In response to Reporters Without Border's report of the
coverage of the elections he said it was because they were watching the
"The report is because of the general atmosphere of the
elections, they didn't study the content of what was being reported.
The newspapers are government owned and they are very closely watched.
It has to be free and fair for a free press to work in."
"The election went as expected. The person who was
suppose to win won," he continued. Now he says that the question is
whether or not the promises are going to be kept.
Despite the free atmosphere, he continued to express
concerns that difficulties for journalists remained. "Everything is
there for a free and fair press, but they are coming out of a slave
system, a cast system, and there are people who think everything
belongs to them. That's not to say that they are in the press, but
there is still a lot of learning to do. Freedom of Press is brand new,
and they are working on it."
When asked if there were any lessons that could be
taken from the Mauritanian media's efforts in a new democracy, he
quickly fired back.
"I think that question is wrong. I think the question
should be what does Mauritania think they can take from other African
countries." He then explained that many journalists fear radio, citing
Mille Collines and the Rwandan genocide. But Kazolias says that in a
country with 40 percent illiteracy, this type of media is critical for
a functioning democracy.
For Kazolias, Mauritania shows that a well functioning
press and democracy does not occur overnight, and the media still faced
many challenges in Mauritania. "Everything lacks. They need journalism
school, they need to learn things like how to interview, and not just
feed the person they are interviewing what they want. They need money,
a means to be financially independent. They need education, paper,
everything. But they are trying."