Between 2005 and 2008 the West African state witnessed unprecedented press freedom, the likes of which Mauritanians have not enjoyed since independence from France in 1960, when state-run radio and television stations were established even before political parties. The content being put forward by state media outlets, including the Mauritanian News Agency (ANI) and the government newspaper, Al-Shaab, witnessed a complete transformation during this period.
Despite the state of declining media freedoms following the August 2008 uprising, 2010 marked the beginning of a new course in Mauritania’s media roadmap after parliament enacted Law No. 45 of 2010. The law relaxed restrictions on radio and television, while also calling for state media institutions to become public companies. The law also created the opportunity for the establishment of new private radio and television stations.
Following this, Mauritania’s media scene saw a dramatic leap forward from an institutional standpoint. This law revived the principles of media freedom and transparency, with the West African country being ranked second to Comoros in the Arab world, in the Reporters Without Borders 2011/2012 Press Freedom Index.
In August 2011, former Minister of Information Hamdi Walad Mahjob submitted a report on media guidelines to govern Mauritania’s public and private media to the head of the High Authority for Press and Broadcasting (HAPA).
Following parliament’s endorsement of the media guidelines, which granted HAPA unlimited powers, the media authority announced the licensing of five new radio stations and two new television channels in November 2011. However, HAPA also rejected a large number of other applications for radio and television licenses, citing procedural mistakes in the paperwork. Despite this, November 2011 represented the start of a new era in Mauritania’s radio and television scene.
However, this decision was also the source of some contention within the country, particularly given that the two newly licensed TV stations are owned by families with close tribal connections to Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.
A number of privately owned channels rejected by HAPA took the decision to broadcast from outside the country, including Al-Mourabitoun TV, loosely affiliated to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, and Chinguit TV, owned by a relative of former President Taya. In fact, these channels were available in the country before the officially licensed La TV du Sahel and Wataniya Television began broadcasting, sparking a major controversy. As a result of this, the directors of La TV du Sahel and Wataniya Television resigned from their positions over disagreements regarding financing, temporarily paralyzing the channel’s broadcast preparations.
Journalist Habiballah Weld Ahmed informed Asharq Al-Awsat that HAPA rejected licensing applications for three main reasons: security reasons (i.e. issues related to the intelligence apparatus); social reasons (tribal issues); and political and financial reasons.
Due to this tense climate, HAPA actively invited applicants who had previously been refused to re-apply. Subsequently, two channels that were denied a license in January 2013 and one that had been rejected in 2011 were granted broadcast licenses. In addition to this, the number of radio stations on the air increased to thirteen, all broadcasting on FM, with the exception of the formerly state-run Wataniya Radio. Of these thirteen radio stations, five private stations were licensed by HAPA: Sahara Media Radio, Nouakchott Radio, Radio Tenwir, Mauritanid FM, and Radio Koubeni. In addition to this, the formerly state-run Wataniya Radio was made public, as were the affiliated Radio Shabab and Radio Qur’an.
In addition to domestic radio stations, a number of international radio stations were also licensed by HAPA in 2006 to broadcast on FM, including BBC Arabic, Radio France Internationale, Radio Monte Carlo, Deutsche Welle radio, China Radio International Arabic and Al-Jazeera Radio.
As for television, eight channels are currently competing to attract audiences in Mauritania: The state-run Channel 1, Channel 2, Chinguit TV, La TV du Sahel, Wataniya Television, Al-Mourabitoun TV, DAVA TV, and El-Mahdara TV.
For its part, the Mauritanian government established a media production company which was inaugurated by the prime minister in July 2012. The company offered to broadcast both public and private televisions channels at low costs, and booked fifteen channels on the Arabsat satellite system. This represented an explosion of unprecedented radio and television choice in a country unaccustomed to media pluralism. The situation today suggests that the prime beneficiaries from this state of increased media freedoms are the country’s political currents and tribal leaders, particularly given the tense political climate that has prevailed over the country over the past two years, with hotly contested municipal and parliamentary elections scheduled for later this year.
Mohamed Weld Al-Dadah, former news director at La TV du Sahel, informed Asharq Al-Awsat that despite these unprecedented media freedoms in Mauritania, the media arena remains undeveloped. He said that the country needs to review how it handles individual media incidents and issues, adding that this remains below international standards.
Dadah attributed this lack of development to the absence of a clear-cut culture regarding how media corporations should deal with staff and stories, adding that this leads to the spread of an unprofessional work ethic. He also attributed it to the lack of required skills and experience among Mauritania’s nascent media community, adding that the Mauritanian media arena is still in its infancy and so lacks institutional experience and a pool of well-trained cadres.
There is almost a complete absence of domestic academic institutions that train journalists and media professionals. Dadah said: “Failure is inevitable unless an initiative is undertaken to professionalize the media arena, in addition to monitoring how media outlets observe rules and regulations regarding handling their employees and content.”
Mauritanian media representatives told Asharq Al-Awsat that the main problem with new television channels is that investors are not professionals, and thus they lack sufficient knowledge and expertise about the media, not to mention the financial resources and administrative expertise required to run a television channel.
Highlighting this point, Dadah told Asharq Al-Awsat that new television channels often had irregular financing, and that has not helped raise standards in the media. Thus, capital—more precisely, the lack of sufficient funds—was a major element that contributed to undermining Mauritania’s new media freedoms, Dadah said.
Writer and director Mohamed Weld Adoum told Asharq Al-Awsat that private TV channels and radio stations are still enjoying only modest success.
“They are still below the standard of state-run television channels that we were accustomed to and which we have long criticized,” he said.
In Adoum’s opinion, this could be attributed to two main reasons: the financial constraints the majority of these channels are operating under and the lack of experienced and well-trained staff. This is because these channels rely on a new generation of journalists who lack experience and knowledge, even if they do possess the underlying ambition and talent.
He also told Asharq Al-Awsat that the sheer number of new television channels and radio stations is far greater than is required, particularly given the fact that the entire domestic media arena does not exceed an annual budget of USD 8 million.
Adoum, who also serves as director of the annual Nouakchott Film Festival, added: “The media arena does not need this huge number of television channels and radio stations. Otherwise, we may see a repeat of the catastrophic print press experience that took place in the 1990s.”
Asked about the audience for these new television channels in Mauritania, Adoum told Asharq Al-Awsat that the Mauritanian audience is giving them a chance, eschewing Arabic and international channels.