The printing press: A democratic necessity | Part Two

MENASSAT presents the second part of a two part series on the collapse of Mauritania's only printing press. What will it mean for the country's independent newspaper industry?
Mauritania Printing Press
Collapse or not? Predictions are that daily newspapers in Mauritania will likely have to transform into weekly papers if the national printing press continues to flounder.

NOUAKCHOTT, July 7, 2009 (MENASSAT) - As in every country around the world, one cannot speak of democracy without an independent press, as one cannot speak of freedom of the press without democracy.

The rise of independent newspapers in Mauritania coincided with the declaration of democracy in 1992.

Before then, there was only one official newspaper in the country, Al Shaeb (The People), which was basically a mouthpiece for the government.

Speaking truth to power

However, with the recent financial crisis that has hit Mauritania’s only printing press, media workers fear the decline, or even the death, of independent media, an event that would have a tremendous effect on the printing press’ employees, newspaper staff, and readership. 

“The role of the Mauritanian press in consolidating democracy is essential. In fact, freedom and openness in Mauritania have always been tied to the freedom of the press,” said Mohammad Ould Mohammad Imbarak, the general secretary of the National Coalition for Reform and Development.

“The media has contributed to enhancing democracy by allowing the different political parties to express and defend their beliefs. There is a certain level of professionalism that has allowed them to clearly express their views to the people.”

“Our experience, as part of the opposition, fighting the current dictatorship, made us think that the independent press was a foundation for democracy and freedoms. Our struggle against the military dictatorship was disseminated to wide sectors of the Mauritanian people by the press, at a time when the army was imposing one dominant discourse and way of thinking through their official media outlets.”

Mohammad Ould al-Khatat, editor-in-chief of the French daily Nouakchott Info, praises the role of the National Publishing House in spreading culture and supporting the national newspapers.

“As a state-affiliated institution, the house is doing a great job in consolidating democracy by printing independent newspapers for low prices. It continued to do so, despite all of the problems and obstacles it faced.”

Ould al-Khatat said that the printing press’ financial situation is coming at a time when the political situation in Mauritania is unstable.

“During this period of political unsettlement and economic sanctions, it concerns us to see the semi-stagnation of the press, and the incapability of the house to play its role.” He believes that these developments will lead to the bankruptcy and collapse of the newspapers in Mauritania, unless the government steps up.

Mauritania's ousted president  Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi formally resigned on Saturday, clearing the way for a transitional government that is divided between civilian politicians and the soldiers who deposed Abdallahi last August in a coup led by General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.

“We realize the financial crisis of the house, and take all of these issues into consideration. But we demand that the government save the printing press from bankruptcy; it simply plays a major role in the country.”

Dr. Mohammad Ould Ajdoud, deputy editor-in-chief of al-Siraj daily, told MENASSAT that people are no longer interested in the official state media, “because it only reflects one point of view. People seek diversity which is needed to guarantee democracy.”

He continued, “The newspapers and media institutions reflect the political mind. Some newspapers are affiliated with the left, others with the Islamic movement, and others with the government and with influential financial and social circles.”
Ould Ajdoud does not believe the crisis will lead to the demise of the newspaper in Mauritania, though he does think it will pave the way for most dailies to become weeklies.

“Our entire work strategy has changed. While we used to meet every morning to prepare our daily work plan, we now have an editorial meeting twice a day, in the morning and at night, to discuss the issue coming out in two days time .”

“The collapse of the house will lead to the collapse of the independent press, but also to the unemployment of hundreds of young people who benefit one way or another from the press, including editors, administrative employees, designers, distributors and even the vendors on the streets.”

Journalists and vendors: fear of the same ugly fate

Officials at the publishing house and members of the press say that the government is responsible for the financial crisis, as it did not take into consideration the gravity of the crisis when making major national economic decisions.

According to one of the employees, “when some companies lose, the government helps them out, because they offer the citizens services. If the government is reluctant to do so in this case – do to a deficit or mismanagement or even lack of improvisation - these institutions will collapse.”
“Initially, the house was not facing major financial problems. But the government’s refusal to offer the printing press compensation is what led to the current crisis.”

Some analysts think that this situation is solely the result of the August 2008 military coup, which led to a major imbalance in the expenditures, resource management, the government’s budget and the fair distribution to official institutions.

The Mauritanian press also provides job opportunities to vendors, who range from between 12 and 70 years old.

Sheikh Bin Mohammad, one of the distributors, told MENASSAT that most of the newspapers are having their issues returned due to their late publishing, which has affected the vendors’ revenues significantly. 

Some say that while online news outlets reduced the number of newspapers being sold, the fact that issues are being published late and the unstable future of the National Publishing House threatens to destroy the printed press.

Most of the vendors are not aware of the printing press crisis, but nonetheless contend that the collapse of the National Publishing House will lead to the distress of dozens of families and the unemployment of many youth who make a living by selling newspapers, not to mention the intellectual and cultural implications.

The Mauritanian media remains stressed and in limbo. Most journalists are convinced that the collapse of the printing press will lead to the fall of the print journalism, while vendors say that the loss of the independent media will trigger a crash in the entire sector.

The question remains, will the day come when the printed press will disappear from Nouakchott kiosks? The answer from the rank and file of Mauritania's newspaper business is "We hope not."