20 April 2007
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Mauritanian Media Put to the Test

Two years 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.

The election 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 surprise.

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 overnight.

In response to Reporters Without Border's report of the coverage of the elections he said it was because they were watching the public media.

"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."

Source: RAP 21