In 2003, Mauritania’s press remained subject to the whims of the Interior Ministry, which continued to use the country’s broadly defined, restrictive press law to stifle independent reporting. For years, Article 11 of the law has been the state’s strongest weapon against the press. The article grants the Interior Ministry the power to suspend any newspaper that, among other things, “harms general interests” or “touches upon Islamic principles.” Journalists complain that when a publication is banned, specific reasons are rarely provided.
Although journalists are rarely jailed for their work, Article 11 stipulates that offending journalists can be imprisoned for up to a year for violating the press law. The threat of sanctions further solidifies the self-censorship already prevalent among journalists, who avoid negative coverage of the president, the military, and foreign governments that maintain close ties with Mauritania.
Mauritanian journalists worked amid a climate of uncertainty in 2003, highlighted by a June coup attempt against President Maaouya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya, who has ruled for 19 years. Journalists said that in the months following the coup attempt, authorities were less tolerant of dissent and more apt to use the law to silence criticism.
In July, the government banned an issue of Le Rénovateur, a French-language bimonthly that has been a victim of Article 11 on numerous occasions. According to press reports, Le Rénovateur‘s editor said the ban was imposed because of an article about the decrease in the black-market value of the Mauritanian currency. The Interior Ministry also banned Arabic- and French-language versions of the private weekly Le Calame in July and August because of an interview with Ahmad Ould Daddah, one of President Ould Taya’s main opponents in the November presidential election. And in September, the Interior Ministry banned an issue of the Arabic weekly Assahafa. Its editors believe that the move came because the paper ran a political advertisement for opposition candidates before the official campaign period had begun.
Authorities banned the Islamist-leaning weekly newspaper Raya in June a few days prior to the coup attempt. The ban against the paper, which the authorities accused of incitement, took place as part of a government crackdown on Islamist activists.
Legal restrictions make it nearly impossible to establish a daily newspaper. For instance, editors are required to give five copies of each issue to the Interior Ministry and then wait for approval, which is often subject to long delays. Because of the uncertainty in knowing how long approval will take, editors say it is not financially feasible to establish a daily publication.
Newspaper circulations are small in Mauritania, and editors say that high production costs are reflected in high newsstand prices. As a result, publications are only available to a small portion of the population. According to one editor, newspapers are rarely available outside the capital, Nouakchott, and high production costs mean that only a few papers publish on a regular basis. Low levels of literacy further erode the print media’s influence. Broadcast media remain firmly under state control.