Lawsuits dash hopes of press freedom in Mauritania

Mauritania ranked 50th out of 169 in Reporters without Borders' 2007 Press Freedom Index – the best score among Arab countries and a direct result of the ouster of president Taya. But press freedom is now facing a new threat from a litany of lawsuits by powerful business and government interests.
By Mohammad Salem in Nouakchott
Mauritania Internet

NOUAKCHOTT, Dec. 31, 2007 (MENASSAT.COM) – When Colonel Maaouya Ould Taya was deposed as president of Mauritania in 2005, the press core rejoiced.

For more than 15 years, Mauritania’s media had been subjected to a campaign of intimidation and harassment; it was a routine practice for government agents to invoke the infamous Article 11 in order to seize newspaper issues  whenever something printed was not to the liking of the ruling junta.

Newspapers faced regular censorship, and over a 14-year period of time, between 1991 and 2005, scores of newspaper issues had been seized and dozens of newspapers had lost their publishing rights.

Indeed, Article 11 was the symbolic knife held to the throats of many journalists and newspaper publishers that were pressing for greater press freedoms.

But Taya’s departure saw the welcome dissolution of Article 11, and had raised hope for a pluralistic press.

Recent media trials have, however, created doubt among Mauritanian reporters who had been looking forward to a new era of press freedoms. Indeed, these trials have been dominating the news in Mauritania for the past three months.

The trials began after various papers published stories about political and financial figures in Mauritania, some of whom were accused of being involved in drug trafficking.

In one week, more than five Mauritanian journalists faced legal suits by Dr. Ashbih Ould Sheikh Ma’ al-Aynayn, the leader of the opposition Popular Front, who was arrested for several days in a much-publicized drug case.

Sheikh Ma’ al-Aynayn sued two Arabic-language newspapers, Safir and Fajr, and the French-language newspaper La Tribune, as well as several Mauritanian news websites.

Several editors-in-chief of local newspapers were summoned before the Mauritanian investigative police – which since Taya's ouster is no longer under the control of the Ministry of Internal Affairs but of the Public Prosecution and the Ministry of Justice, a move which was supposed to increase press freedom.

Sheikh Ma’ al-Aynayn ultimately dropped his suit against the journalists, due in part to what sources say was the newspaper editors’ stance in supporting the Sheikh when he was jailed for two years in Layoun prison after being accused of conspiring against the Taya regime.

Back then, observers considered this move a threat to press freedom because support for Ma’al-Aynayn might have stirred up trouble between the government and the press.

It didn't stop with Ma’al-Aynayn. After he dropped his lawsuits, more trials, lawsuits and arrests ensued.

This time, Abdul Fattah Ould Aabidina, editor-in-chief of the daily Al-Aqsa, was sued after publishing what was considered sensitive information that alleged the wealthy Mauritanian businessman Mohamed Ould Bou Aamato was involved in drugs trafficking, a case that has become known as the 'Nwadibo scandal.'

Al-Aqsa also alleged that many of Aamato’s firms and business associates were involved in the drug trafficking.

Bou Aamato filed a lawsuit against Ould Aabidina, with the help of a myriad of top Mauritanian lawyers. The trial ended with a one year jail term for Ould Aabidina and a one million dollar fine. After being jailed for few days during the investigation, Ould Aabidina was released a few hours before the court verdict was read.

Ould Aabidina fled to Dubai and was sentenced in absentia.

Since Ould Aabidina's sentencing, the round of trials against journalists in Mauritania seems to have come to an end, but the problems faced by Mauritania’s press corps remain.

Reporters without Borders (RSF) issued a press release recently condemning the verdict against Ould Aabidina, saying its aim was to silence the country’s journalists and discourage them from doing their jobs.

In 2007, Khet Bint al-Boukhari, the wife of the current Mauritanian president, Sidi Ould Sheikh Abdallah, had already filed a lawsuit in 2007 against Mohamad Ould Abbe, editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper Al-Badil Al-Thaleth, after he published information suggesting the growing influence of the first lady in the government.

Ould Abbe’s paper contended that the first lady had interfered in the work of some eminent government representatives and ministers, which by her own accounts, pushed her to sue Ould Abbe and the newspaper. The two parties later settled, and Bint al-Boukhari withdrew the lawsuit in lieu of a public apology published in the newspaper.

Nonetheless, for Abbe, the issue was not dead; he was again summoned before a jury on similar charges. Media sources and rights activists put massive pressure on the first lady to drop this second lawsuit.

In addition to these trials, journalists have faced death threats and physical attacks at the hands of government agents.

One recent incident involved the journalist Mohamed Ould Moqdad, who was assaulted some three months ago by the bodyguards of the prime minister as he was taking pictures of him at the Al-Idhaa radio station.

Thus, a country with 3 million people that boasts 20 newspapers, in Arabic, English and French, that ranks the highest of Arab countries where press freedoms are concerned, must still contend with a business and government elite that can invoke laws and use their considerable resources to silence the efforts of Mauritania’s journalists.