Mauritania authorities silence voice of the people

Mauritanian authorities silenced radio Sawt al-Mouwatana (voice of the people) this month after only 19 months on the air. Its closure may mean the end of impartial reporting on Mauritania's radio airwaves.
Radio Mauritania
Sawt al-Mouwatana - Mauritania's only free radio source is silenced. What are the implications? R.R.

NOUAKCHOTT, June 25, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Sawt al-Mouwatana radio has been silenced after only 19 months of being on the air, and some say that with its closure go the hopes of any impartial broadcast sources in Mauritania.

Sawt al-Mouwatana translates to 'voice of the people,' and for six hours every day, it used to broadcast from the official radio station in Mauritania’s capital, Nouakchott.

And while Sawt may have shared office buildings with Mauritania's state media, the two couldn't have been further from each other where content was concerned.

Sawt's content touched on issues that garnered it a huge audience share, in large part because the programmers concentrated on the daily problems faced by average Mauritanians – issues that often put the Mauritanian government in the hot seat.

Sources confirmed that state radio representatives won a royal decree to shut down Sawt on June 12, something that Mohammad Mawloud Ould al-Maaloum, editor-in-chief of the Mauritanian newspaper al-Tajdid (Renewal) said was a direct challenge to free speech.

"The Mauritanian authorities' decision to close down the radio network after less than 18 months is a clear message for the Mauritanian journalists to be careful because this station crossed many imaginary red lines [with its reporting] when state radio was a propaganda outlet," Maaloum told MENASSAT.

He added, "What is important to remember here is what al-Mouwatana represented. Although it was small, it was still was able to touch the worries and concerns of the people and the country and even treated taboos by highlighting worn out social and political subjects in their different shows."

Officially, the letter the government sent to Sawt al-Mouwatana alerting it of the radio's pending closure said that the state radio needed Sawt's six hours of broadcasting time because new programs required them to reclaim the airspace.

A step backwards

Other journalists told MENASSAT that muzzling Sawt was a regression in the advancement of freedom of press for Mauritania – pointing to the fact that Sawt was getting too popular for the government to ignore the issues that were raised with the radio's varied programs.

According to Maaloum, Sawt al-Mouwatana was able to create a free media outlet that involved people from many different social classes raising the bar to the idea of freedom of expression and open opinions in Mauritania.

Journalist Ahmad Ould Abu al-Maali, said it was already a coup that Sawt operated with a relative degree of leeway while under the scrutiny of Mauritania’s military council.

On the other hand, Maali said the civilian government was very comfortable muzzling the national voice of Sawt al-Mouwatana – stopping its broadcasts on the occasions when it felt threatened.

"It was as if the military officers with their tanks and weapons were actually kinder to Sawt al-Mouwatana than Mauritania's president and his administration," he said.

Abu al-Maali added there was little room for optimism with regards to what this closure means for other media outlets in Mauritania.

The Mauritanian al-Jazeera

Mauritanians had informally dubbed Sawt al-Mouwatana the "Mauritanian al-Jazeera" because of the influence it had gained in a short period of time. 

Sawt al-Mouwatana's general manager, Abdullah Ould Mahmoudo, told MENASSAT that about 53,000 Mauritanian's had called the station during call-in programs, and that they hosted nearly 5,600 guests and prepared about 5,500 programs in the 19 months they were on air.

Mahmoudo said the biggest loser in Sawt al-Mouwatana's closure was the Mauritanian media, asserting that his station was the voice of the people in regards to reporting on their suffering, hopes and ambitions.

As for the dozens of young employees who had worked pro-bono during the radio's short-lived broadcast period, Mahmoudo said they would be the first contacted if the station re-launched its programs.

"They are young and need experience. But they are motivated by their feelings of belonging to the country. I think they have a great future. They will play a major role in any future work we do, through any job opportunities, the capacities and the means we have at our disposal," he told MENASSAT.

Meanwhile, supporters of Sawt al-Mouwatana must now search for a new alternative to the radio broadcasts – something they are not likely to find any time soon.