Did Mauritania's military rulers decide to silence the "Pashmerga" media?

Three Mauritanian journalists were jailed in late February – accused of defamation, blackmail and attempting to mislead the public. It’s the first case brought against members of Mauritania’s press corps since General Muhammad Ould Abdel-Aziz took power in an August 2008 coup d’etat. MENASSAT’s Sayyed Ahmad Ould Bab takes a closer look at how this case will affect these so-called “Pashmerga” reporters.
Mauritania article
Mauritania is suffering from a litany of press freedoms issues after the August 2008 coup d'etat.

NOUKCHOTT, March 2, 2009 (MENASSAT) – Three jailed Mauritanian journalists working for the “Pashmerga” press are the first journalists being charged for violating Mauritania’s press laws since an August 2008 coup d’etat deposed President Sidi Mohammed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi

The three journalists, including publishing manager of the Shamama newspaper Limrabet Ould Said Ahmad, were detained on February 26 when a member of the permanent Secretariat of the Higher Council filed a suit against the three.

Said Ahmad, Nouh Ould Mohamad Mahmoud of Babel newspaper, and journalist Mohamad Ould Abdallah were charged with defamation of “on-duty public servants” and for trying to “mislead” the public after attempting to do polling survey’s ahead of June presidential elections.

The story of the detained

But few in Mauritania’s independent or mainstream press corps have taken to defending the detention of the three journalists because they work for the so-called Pashmerga press – a controversial form of media that Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls “illegal” and detrimental to journalist practices in Mauritania.

In a 2007 Reporters Without Borders (RSF) report said, "the "Pashmergas" press’ professionalism was highly questionable - used by the former regime of Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya before the 2005 coup d’etat to deprive independent press of its rights.

The Pashmerga press has traditionally survived on the advertising dollars from Mauritania’s business and political elite, and has been confrontational to the country’s military establishment.

Sources told MENASSAT the three journalists were directly challenging the military junta of General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz and a face-off between the Pashmerga press and Aziz was inevitable.

Information leaked by sources close to the Higher Council of the State said that state prosecutors were also charging the three detainees with "false identity as journalists" because they had asked the Mauritanian General Secretariat for funding to conduct a survey before presidential elections.

According to the electronic news site Sahra Media, the General Secretariat refused the three men's offer, “for many reasons, mainly because they did not belong to any ‘known’ media establishments or newspapers, but also because they failed to prove their identity as journalists. The last published issues of their newspapers were in 2005, which means they were absent from the scene for at least 3 years.”

The same sources continued, "The three men demanded 1200000 MO, about $5,000, to finance a trip they were taking, which the Secretariat did not approve, and then the journalists threatened to harm employees at the Secretariat, saying, ‘They were preparing articles attacking those who did not finance them. They later called to know if their requests were approved by the Secretariat."

The three journalists made good on their threat showing up at the Secretariat’s offices on February 27, with pamphlets bearing the logo of an "Arab Press Institution,” signed by Limrabit Ould Sayyed Ahmad.

The pamphlets harshly criticized officials at the permanent secretary of the "Higher Council,” and on the same day, February 27, the General Secretary of the "Higher Council" filed a law suit against the three journalists.

If convicted, the three face up to one year in prison and maximum fines of $100,000

A renewed conflict

The confrontation between the "Pashmergas" press and the military dates back to 2006. At the time, the ruling military council pumped money into Pashmergas newspapers in exchange for positive stories to counter political discontent building in Mauritania in the period following the 2005 coup d’etat.

Major Mauritanian newspapers were at extreme odds with the Pashmergas press in 2006, after the newspapers called for a boycott all state-sponsored events unless the government responded to reform demands.

29 independent newspaper heads also released a statement in August 2006 announcing their boycott of a press conference held by the head of the military council.

The statement also protested the government’s planting of some 70 Pashmergas reporters at the press conference, describing the Pashmergas press as the "ridiculing the press" filled with reporters  “who had nothing to do with journalism.”

The independent newspapers' decision had come 8 months after a previous protest, when major newspapers' reporters refused to pose questions to the head of the military council, Brigadier Muhammad Val, during his first press conference after the 2005 coup.

Press accounts at the time said Pashmergas journalists "crashed" the conference at the presidential palace and high jacked it, bringing up irrelevant questions about water dams, or tribal conflicts and the need to support civil organizations, which effectively killed the press conference, a statement said.

The independent press did not yield to government decisions; instead, they escalated their campaign and turned against the military regime.

In April 2006, 50 journalists released a public statement against a military report completed by a consulting committee charged with reforming Mauritania’s media landscape.

The objecting journalists called the report a whitewashing of a “terrible past,” and charged the committee with “aborting reform.”

The statement was signed by 25 journalists.

Ironically, the statement also contained signatures from the 3 detained Pashmergas journalists, leading some to question why there has been at best minimal interest in their detention by Mauritania’s press establishment.

RSF report and its fallout

Meanwhile, as everybody has been distracted by the looming presidential and parliamentary elections' campaigns, a report by "Reporters without Frontiers" (RSF) was issued on the 17th of October 2007 focusing mainly on "Pashmerga" journalism in Mauritania, blaming it for jeopardizing the integrity of the press, despite notable advancement in freedom of expression during the past 2 years.

The report also criticized how officials dealt with Pashmergas newspapers, including officially inviting them to press junkets.

The report paved the way for drawn out conflict between then president Sidi Ould al-Sheikh Abdullah and a group of Pashmarga journalists including director of Shamama newspaper Limrabit Ould Sayyed Ahmad.

In mid-2007, the Mauritanian Authorities tried to regulate the media sector, and many of the Pashmerga journalists took to the streets in protest of the ministries attempts - accusing the regime of strangling press freedoms, and forcing journalists out of their jobs.

In 2008, the Information Ministry decided to license 35 out of total 170 private newspapers, and ordered the rest to apply professional standards or find sources of income other than Pashmerga journalism, which the RSF said in its report had become a haven for an army of unemployed “non-journalists.”

These measures inflamed the Peshmergas and sent them on the offensive. They tailed the then president Abdullah at the 2007 Islamic League summit in Dakar, distributing pamphlets attacking the Mauritanian government and accusing it of silencing opposition journalists.

One thing that is clear with the detention of the 3 Pashmerga journalists in last month is that they (Pashmergas) still pose a threat to the military regime’s attempt to control the information.

But Mauritania’s journalist corps has been refraining from commenting on the issue or publicly criticizing the journalists’ arrest.

And with rights organizations being conspicuously silent on the issue of the journalists’ detentions, the situation is certainly not helping Mauritania’s ranking on the RSF World Press Freedoms index.