Press law violations were de-criminalised nearly 10 years ago, allowing journalists to work in a less repressive – but financially precarious – environment.
Radio enjoys the largest media audience in Mauritania, with the sector dominated by state-owned radio. The print press, largely privately owned and Francophone, are gradually disappearing. Some privately owned media have been able to consolidate their positions over the past 15 years, including Alakhbar.info, a general-interest investigative outlet, Cridem.org, Saharamedias.net and El Mourabiton TV, a television network that broadcasts in five languages. Many news sites have been launched and have established a strong presence on social networks. These sites include Tawatur.net, Bellewarmedia, and La Vision.
Given their poverty-stricken circumstances, journalists are especially vulnerable to political pressure. Some newsrooms, such as that of Al Akhbar, still manage to maintain a degree of independence. The president of the High Authority for Press and Broadcasting is appointed by presidential decree, a system that favours government control over professional ethics and media pluralism. Powerful businessmen buy television networks and radio stations to influence public opinion.
Press law violations were decriminalised in 2011. A law passed in 2006 and amended in 2011 strengthens press freedom and incorporates general principles on information access and source protection. However, it contains numerous restrictions on journalists’ work. A new cyber-crime law adopted in 2020 has a draconian bent and gives rise to concern. In February 2021, the president committed himself to apply a series of proposals aimed at consolidating freedom of expression. Among these are the establishment of a National Information Council, and expansion of access to public information. Source protection could be threatened under certain circumstances involving “national security,” without that term being clearly defined.
Despite a government promise to improve journalists’ working conditions, their circumstances remain financially precarious. Reporters are vulnerable to “journalism for hire,” in which they write promotional pieces for whoever is willing to pay. An unofficial directive by the former regime excluded independent media from government advertising, forcing several of them to close. Though media receive significant subsidies, these do not provide a stable economic model, due to incompetent management.
Mauritania is multicultural and multiethnic, but members of the Moorish ethnic group control most media, which affects content diversity. Media are reluctant to take on issues involving marital rape, sexuality and slavery, as well as corruption, the military, Islam and inequality between communities.
Journalists are rarely victimised by physical assault, but they can be targeted for verbal attack and harassment campaigns on social networks. Reporters can move freely throughout the country, but some military zones near the eastern and northern borders are difficult to reach without authorisation.