15 June 2007
Special Feature:
Taboos Melt Away, but Problems Persist

The situation of the press in Mauritania has improved significantly in the past years. Yet despite the progress made, the sector still faces a number of challenges including the training of journalists, which remains sadly lacking.

Islam, prostitution and slavery were just a few taboos in the Mauritanian press under President Ould Taya, who ruled the country with an iron fist for over two decades. The military coup of 3 August 2005 brought down this regime, paving the way for the first free, multi-party elections in the Islamic republic's history, which were held in March 2007. Three months after the elections, what is the status of press freedom in Mauritania?

"Since the military coup we have entered a period of relative freedom. Controversial issues such as slavery, corruption, drug trafficking or the repression of Mauritania's Sub-Saharan peoples are no longer taboo. Recently we published reports on homosexuality and prostitution. It is a revolution to be able to tackle issues like that," said Mamadou Sy, founder and publisher of L'Eveil, Mauritania's first independent newspaper.

The first issue of L'Eveil was published in 1991. The country was going through one of its most tragic periods. "Thousands of black Africans had been deported to Senegal and a few years earlier around a hundred black African officers were massacred by Ould Tayah's government," said Sy. He decided to give up his status of journalist for the national press agency seconded to the presidency of the government at that time to launch a weekly that would provide accurate and true information and stimulate political debate promoting democracy.

Paradoxically, the relative independence enjoyed by the press has been accompanied by a spate of libel suits against journalists. On 25 May 2007, the French organisation Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemned the imprisonment of Abdel Fettah Ould Ebeidna, editor of the Arab-language daily Al-Aqsa, following a libel suit filed by a local business-man, Mohamed Ould Bouammatou. In its issue dated 16 May, the daily implicated Bouammatou in a cocaine trafficking affair involving the son of a former Mauritanian president and the sons of other several influential figures.

Although he is firmly in favour of decriminalizing press offences, Mamadou Sy believes that the high number of legal suits is due to the fact that most Mauritanian journalists don't know the ABC of their profession. "They don't bother to check their information and turn rumours into front-page headlines," he said.

"Now that the direct censorship has disappeared, the new challenge is training. We don't have schools of journalism in Mauritania. Without training, neither professionalism nor a respect for codes of practice can take root. And that explains the excesses we are witnessing today," the founder of L'Eveil told APN.  

Training is not the only stumbling block for the Mauritanian press. "We are also suffering from tough market conditions. Mauritanians don't read a lot. Our readership is at an embryonic stage of development. This is due to the dominance of the oral tradition in Mauritania, as well as a literacy rate of 46%," said Sy, whose weekly with a circulation of 2,000 is one of the most successful publications in the country.

To give a better idea of the difficulties faced by newspapers in Mauritania, one copy of a newspaper is read by an average of 20 people. Furthermore, re-sellers rent L'Eveil for 20 ouguiyas (0.2 euros), although they are meant to sell it for around 200 ouguiyas (2 euros). "We also suffer from a weak distribution network," said the founder of L'Eveil, who pursues his battle for the Mauritanian press despite all the obstacles in his path. His next project? The launch of an Arab-language publication.