Islamic Republic of Mauritania

Relevant legislation:

Summary

The legal system of Mauritania is a mix of French civil law and Sharia Law. Crimes against Islam and religion are punished particularly harshly.

Mauritania does not have dedicated whistleblowing laws or meaningful provisions to protect whistleblowers. While whistleblowing is not included as one of the few “legitimate” reason for dismissal from employment under the Labor Code, neither is it included as a category of unfair dismissal. The Labor Code does not provide any channels for making protected disclosures or recourse for retaliation suffered for whistleblowing in the workplace or elsewhere.

While various laws guarantee certain freedoms in terms of speech, expression and the media, in all instances these freedoms are immediately followed by a clause that they are limited “by the law”. Consequently, the media operates in an ambiguous legal environment in which they face frequent harassment and arbitrary applications of the law. Conflicting provisions in different laws, such as the Penal Code and the Freedom of the Press Law, compound this ambiguity.

Many journalists are believed to practice self-censorship, particularly around issues relating to the military, corruption, Islam and slavery. A highly publicized case in which a blogger was sentenced to death for making negative statements about Islam remains unresolved.

Whistleblower Laws and policies

The Constitution “guarantees to all citizens public and individual freedoms”, including freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of opinion and thought. No further details of these freedoms are given, except that they “cannot be limited except by the law”. (1)

The Labor Code does not make reference to whistleblower protections. It does, however, limit legitimate reasons for dismissal to force majeure, mutual consent of the employer and employee, gross negligence on the part of one of the parties “left to the discretion of the competent court,” or the death of the employee.(2) In the case of a contested dismissal, it rests on the employer to prove a legitimate reason,(3) although no penalties for unfair dismissal are specified. Notably, dismissal for whistleblowing is not specifically prohibited, unlike dismissal on the grounds of race, color, gender, age or political opinions.(4) Mediation is required before a case can be brought to the Labor Court.

Potential whistleblowers are not protected by any other legislation in Mauritania.

Weaknesses and needed reforms

No specific whistleblowing protections are on the books in Mauritania, and there is no evidence that any such legislation is being considered.

Although there is no apparent movement toward a national whistleblowing law, the government has called for supranational protection of whistleblowers. The 2015 Nouakchott Declaration (named for the capital city of Mauritania and developed at a meeting held at the request of the president) calls upon member countries of the African Union to “extend sufficient protection to whistleblowers in the public and private sectors, who play a key role in the prevention and detection of corruption, thus defending the public interest”.(5)

Secrecy laws

Mauritania has strict secrecy laws and harsh punishments for those who violate them. Allowing information concerning national defense to be brought to the public is punishable by 20 years of forced labor.(6) Where treason is not the intent, this penalty is reduced to a maximum of 10 years.(7) Publishing “information relating to the measures taken to discover and arrest the perpetrator of treason is punishable by 20 years of forced labor.”

Employees who communicate the trade secrets of their employer to “foreigners or Mauritanians resident in a foreign country” are liable for up to five years in prison. If the recipient is a Mauritanian resident in Mauritania, the maximum term is two years.(8) No specific provisions for journalists or non-employees who communicate these secrets are given.

Media and speech laws

The Constitution does not specifically provide for freedom of the press, although the Freedom of the Press Law states that the access to information and freedom of the press “are inalienable rights of the citizen”. However, the law also notes these freedoms can be limited “by law and to the extent strictly necessary for the preservation of the democratic society”. (9)

The Penal Code provides for harsh sentences for crimes against religion and “good morals”. Committing heresy or apostasy (including in print) is punishable by death.(10) Written or spoken claims that accuse a Muslim person of adultery, homosexuality or being the child of unmarried persons can be punished with 80 lashes. The sentence can be revoked if the victim pardons the accused or the accusation is confirmed.(11)

Distributing “printed matter, all writings, drawings, posters, engravings, paintings, photographs, films or photographs…[or] objects or images contrary to good morals” carries a sentence of imprisonment for up to two years and a ban of up to six months on carrying out the activity by which the material was distributed, such as publishing.(12) Re-offences carry harsher penalties.

Defamation can also carry heavy fines. The Freedom of the Press Law allows monetary fines for journalistic offences against the president(13); defamation of government officials, certain government employees and official bodies (including courts and the military)(14); and “offenses committed publically” against foreign heads of state and diplomats.(15) Defamatory claims about the private lives of government officials can be punished with jail time of up to six months in the case of claims being made because of a person’s ethnic group, nationality, religion or race.(16) The definition of defamation in the Freedom of the Press Law does implicitly extend to private citizens, but no punishments are set out for defaming those outside government office.

A Cyber Crime Bill was adopted by Parliament in 2015.(17) Journalists raised concerns that this bill would allow them to be prosecuted for “almost anything published online.”(18) The Bill provides for prison sentences and heavy fines for disseminating certain types of politically sensitive content over the internet, as well as reaffirming the illegality of material that undermines the values of Islam(19) and of sharing information considered to be in the interest of national defense.(20)

Journalists have “the duty and the right” to protect their sources in “all circumstances, except in the cases provided for by law for the purpose of combating crimes”.(21)

Whistleblower cases

No cases of whistleblowing in Mauritania are known to have been published. It is unclear whether there have been cases of whistleblowing that have been suppressed, or whether the lack of legislative protections have prohibited people coming forward with sensitive information.

However, in a recent and highly publicized case, a blogger was sentenced to death for renunciation of Islam. Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed M’Kheitir was arrested in 2014 and faced an expedited judicial process for criticizing the unequal social order in Mauritania and the prophet Muhammad. He appealed the sentence, but his court-appointed lawyers resigned in February 2015 for fear of reprisal from religious conservatives.(22) In December 2016, a hearing of the Supreme Court found that there had been procedural irregularities in earlier trials but he remained in detention. On October 8th, 2017, a court of appeals sentenced him to two years of imprisonment, and the prosecutor general immediately challenged the ruling before the Supreme Court.(23a)(23b)

Human rights activists also risk lengthy prison sentences, with those active in anti-slavery particularly susceptible to arrest. The 2016 Global Slavery Index estimates that 43,000 Mauritanians are enslaved.(24) Other estimates are much higher, although the government staunchly denies that slavery exists in Mauritania.(25) The president of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA) has been jailed at least three times and alleges that he was tortured in prison.(26) He was most recently released in May 2016 after serving 20 months for ‘inciting trouble’, ‘belonging to an unrecognized organization’, ‘leading an unauthorized rally’, and ‘violence against the police’.(27) As of April 2018, two activists from the IRA are still detained despite the condemnation of the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention which asked the Mauritanian government to release them in November 2017.(28)

Media rights and freedom

The 2016 Freedom House Freedom of the Press report(29) rates press freedom in Mauritania as “Partly Free”. It notes concern that the new cybercrime “established prison sentences and heavy fines for disseminating certain types of politically sensitive content over the internet”.

The Freedom House report also notes that the media is highly politicized, reporting that opposition members maintain that the allocation of licenses favors pro-government political, tribal, and ethno-racial interests. It further claims that the High Authority for the Press and Audiovisual Sector warned journalists against criticizing the president or his family and suspended a radio talk show for threatening “national unity and social cohesion”.

Several incidences of harassment of journalists are noted, including arrests for publishing documents related to alleged bank fraud and investigating a recent death at a hospital. The 2016 Freedom House Freedom in the World report(30) notes the harassment of a journalist that received death threats and was repeatedly interrogated by authorities after he reported on corrupt dealings between a member of parliament and a businessman connected to the ruling party.

Reporters Without Borders ranks Mauritania 55th in the 2017 world rankings.(31) The group notes that there has been a “significant fall in violence and intimidation against journalists” despite the “clear and intimidating message to the media” sent by the death sentence dispensed to blogger Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed M’Kheitir. Also noted is journalists’ practice of self-censorship for “fear of reprisal… when covering subjects such as corruption, the military, Islam, or slavery, which still exists in Mauritania.”

Further information

The appetite to enhance the protections offered to the media may be somewhat limited, particularly in regard to material about religion. Reports claim that thousands of religious conservative demonstrated during the trial of Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed M’Kheitir, celebrating when the death sentence was handed down.(32)

Keeping Score:

How Mauritania’s Whistleblower Protection Laws Compare to International Standards

The following standards for whistleblower laws are derived from guidelines developed by the OECD, Council of Europe, Blueprint for Free Speech, Government Accountability Project, and Transparency International.

Key:

1 = The standard is comprehensively or very well reflected in the laws
2 = The standard is partially reflected in the laws
3 = The standard is poorly reflected or absent from the laws

Standard Public Sector Private Sector
     
A broad range of organisations and workplaces are covered 3 3
A broad range of offenses may be reported as whistleblowing 3 3
The definition of who may qualify as a whistleblower is broad 3 3
A range of disclosure channels to report internally or to regulators is in place 3 3
People who make disclosures to external organizations, the media or the public are protected 3 3
The threshold for protection is a reasonable belief that the information disclosed is true 3 3
There are opportunities and protections for anonymous disclosures 3 3
Whistleblower confidentiality is protected unless expressly waived 3 3
Organizations are required to establish internal disclosure procedures 3 3
Whistleblowers are protected from a broad range of retaliatory acts 3 3
Victimized whistleblowers have access to a full range of remedies and compensation 3 3
Those who retaliate against a whistleblower are subject to sanctions 3 3
A whistleblower oversight or regulatory agency has been designated 3 3
Whistleblower laws are administered and reviewed transparently 3 3