Nouakchott, Mauritania: The reddish sand from the Sahara still blows across the streets of this sprawling capital of perhaps 800 thousand people where the palaces of wealthy White Moors grow like mushrooms next to the countless Blacks and Touregs sleeping in the streets or in makeshift dwellings without water and electricity.
But the authorities, and their western backers, would have us believe that when five private press groups get a license to broadcast radio and TV for the first time this October, it will represent a major change. This opening of the airwaves is Sahara sand in our eyes to hide the real racial nature of a regime which has become an important actor in “the war on terrorism”.
The first question is who will get a license? One of the five will certainly be Nouakchott Info, a press group which, according to my sources, is owned by General Muhammud Ould al-Ghazwany, military Chief-of-staff and head of the Presidential Guard. He is a long time close associate of General Ould Abdel-Aziz who seized power in 2008 from the only government which came close to being democratically elected in the country since independence in 1960. General al-Ghazwany made his money in mysterious ways as a military officer during the 20 year rule of Ould Taya who took power in a Coup in 1984 and was himself ousted in a coup in 2005. (1)
Secondly, these radio and TV stations will broadcast nationally over the government owned and managed transmitters so even if only close (Moor?) associates get a license, they can be turned off at a minute’s notice. (2) This also means that there will be no local news or community service which only FM could afford. Moreover, it practically assures that the major media groups will continue to work in languages few Mauritanians master such a classical Arabic which some of the White Moors learned as children in Koranic schools or French. Most Moors (30% of the population) and the (ex?) slave and illiterate caste, the Haratine (40% of the population) speak Hassaniya Arabic. (3) Other subsaharan Blacks speak different languages.
There are 12 daily newspapers registered in Mauritania which come out regularly. (4) They are printed on the government owned press and each one is limited to eight pages and one thousand copies with no distribution service. They sell for one dollar a piece (half a day’s wages for over half the country) and are written in classical Arabic or French. The two languages used and the small number of each issue are good indicators of how small is the number of elite Mauritanians who debate the countries future, decide on policies and divide the dividends.
Another group which seems set to get a license is Al Watan (The Nation), a group reportedly financed by Prime Minister Moulaye Mohamed Laghdaf, a White Moor and a longtime ally of General (now President) Ould Abdel-Aziz who appointed him Prime Minister after the 2008 coup and kept him on once Ould Abel-Aziz got himself elected president in 2009. As a leader of the very powerful Tajakant Tribe, Laghdaf’s support is a must.
Saharamedias.net has become very successful, setting up a TV film and production agency which works for such big outsiders as al-Jazeera, al-Arabia and France 24 and has “bureaus” in Rabat, Dakar and Bamako. The group is linked to longtime Education Minister Hasni Ould Didi of a powerful Eastern tribe, the Idalwahli. (5)
The group Essirage (The Light) are openly Islamist and according to my sources get funding from radical Muslim groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and other radicals located in Sudan, Egypt and Turkey. “They have no local financing,” one media expert told me.
If You Want Freedom of the Press, Own One
“There is no independent media in Mauritania,” says Mohamed O., who once worked in the Information Ministry. “There is just private media.” The Mauritanian media represent the interests of those wealthy people who own it.
Mohamed Salem Ould Haiba writes on the Mauritanian internet news site CRIDEM (www.cridem.org) that you can “count on the fingers of one hand the number of people who have pocketed the wealth” of the country. Although an exaggeration, the number of Mauritanians who control the country’s security and financial institutions is extremely small. They are the people own the private media.
This may be one reason why there are no reported cases of censorship under the new government. “We probably have the greatest press freedom of the Arab world,” says Mohammed Mahmud Abu al-Ma-ahi of Nouakchott Info. “What we lack are the means and the financing.” There is no market for publicity in Mauritania.
The government and its western backers can argue that the press groups all have internet sites where readers can access their material and debate policies. But this means little in a country where officially at least half the population is illiterate (much higher if considering French and classical Arabic) and where as many as 60% live on less than two dollars a day. Some sources say that 99% of the Haratine (slave caste) are illiterate. A free internet is no threat to those in power in Mauritania.
Yet, Mauritanian journalists hope the new licenses will lead to greater press freedoms. “The liberalization of the audio-visual is a victory,” says Raky Sy of the National Union of Mauritanian Journalists which counts some 500 members. “But is is extremely limited.”
The West will use this media liberalization to justify increased aid to a government which can easily be called an apartheid regime: the nearly absolute rule of a small White Moor minority to the exclusion of the Black majority. President-General Ould Abel Aziz is a very active member in the fight against al-Qaeda. France and the US would like us to forget he came to power in a coup and runs one of the world’s most corrupt and least transparent countries. The truth is we are nowhere near a real freeing of the airwaves that would benefit Mauritanian citizens and their aspirations for greater democracy and transparency.
Many journalists I spoke to say the private media will be no more informative the the state run radio. “If you want to know the news,” says a longtime reporter with Radio Mauritania, “then you have to look in the Editor-in-chief’s trash bin.”
FM radios are community radios. They cost little to set up, speak the language of the people in their area and speak to their problems. Such radios could articulate the anger of Black Mauritanians at the despotic rule by a minority of White Moors who control the military and the government and pocket the wealth while the majority of the people are left to wallow in their poverty.
We will be able to speak of freedom of the press in Mauritania when people in their own communities are allowed to open and run FM stations without government interference. Under Ould Abdel Aziz, that day is probably still a long ways away.
- al-Gazwany continues to profit handsomely. Transparency International lists Mauritania as one of the world’s most corrupt countries, n°143 out of 178.
- In my listing I count White Maures at 30% of the population. They are the slave holding cast. The other 70% is Black. This breaks down to 40% Haratine, the slave caste of Blacks who, after hundreds of years of servitude to the Berber and Arabic Moors, adopted their language (Hassaniya Arabic) and culture without the status and the 30% of more recent sub-saharan Africans.
- There is no doubt that slavery still exists in Mauritania. Abolitionists from the mainly Haratine IRAM (Initiative de Résurgence du Mouvement Abolitionniste en Mauritanie) told me there are 600 thousand slaves in the country. The US Embassy in Nouakchott told me the number is much smaller although they could not give me a figure. All seem to agree the government is showing little enthusiasm in enforcing the September 2007 law prohibiting slavery.
- In all, some 700 titles (weeklies, monthlies etc.) are registered with the government but only around 40 publish regularly. Many are printed only when the owner of the name is paid by someone who wants to take a shot at someone else in public. These ‘pens-for-hire’ are referred to as “Peshmerghas” by serious Mauritanian reporters.
- In Mauritania racism is never far from the surface even if it is often expressed in codified language. Other Moors refer to the Idawahli as descendants of Jews because of their tight tribal solidarity and their reputation for economizing.