Mauritania bars media from covering Gadhafi-led mediation

Mauritanian journalists from official and independent media outlets are claiming the government barred them from attending March 11 mediation talks with Libyan president Moammar Gadhafi and leaders from both the ousted government and the military junta that took power in a 2008 coup d'etat. MENASSAT's Mohammad Salem reports.
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Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi (C) stands beside Mauritanian coup leader General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz in the capital Nouakchott, March 9, 2009. © REUTERS/Manon Riviere

NOUAKCHOTT, March 16, 2009 (MENASSAT) – The Mauritanian journalist corps is protesting the government’s barring of reporters from the official visit of Libyan president Moammar Gadhafi last week.

Gadhafi, who heads up the African Union, was in Nouakchott to try to resolve tensions still simmering after democratically elected President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi was overthrown in a bloodless military coup last August.

The move to exclude journalists from covering the talks has even pro-government sources questioning the tactics of military junta leader General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, and critics of the new government are calling Gadhafi’s visit a sham.

First came the exclusion

Several local journalists told MENASSAT that the government began a selection process for Gadhafi’s visit about one week ahead of his March 10 visit.

The Mauritanian information ministry told reporters when Gadhafi’s visit was announced in early March and that a local organizing committee would provide interested journalists with special press ID cards to be issued before the mediation talks began.

In the days just prior to Gadhafi’s arrival, the committee told reporters that they had “carefully chosen” 15 journalists to cover the talks.

As a result, dozens of journalists applying to get into the proceedings were denied entry, including major institutions such as the Independent News Agency, considered by media observers to be the paper of record with the largest readership in Mauritania.

Other major media outlets also barred from the Gadhafi-led mediation talks included Akhbar Nouakchott and Al-Siraj for Media and Publishing. According to spokesmen from both outlets, the government has yet to issue any explanation for their exclusion.

Some journalists attempted to get around the government tactics by adding their names to a list with the umbrella party registry the “Desert Tribes Congregation.”  None of the journalists ultimately gained entrance to the meetings.

Journalist Mohammad Ould Assouidi of Al-Siraj told MENASSAT, “It wasn’t at all appropriate for journalists to have to turn to the tribes’ practices to get an entry card - which is technically a right for reporters in countries throughout the world.”

Assouidi added, “This is a government attempt to muzzle the journalists and control the media, or better yet, it shows the regimes fear of being asked questions and interviewed in a way that doesn’t serve the military regime.”

Journalist Al-Imam Mohammad of Akhbar Nouakchott said barring major media outlets from attending last weeks summit was no real surprise, given what he called “traditional patterns of government control over the media.”

In one media response to the governments decision to bar reporters from covering Gadhafi’s visit, The Independent News Agency published an add for every major news item it ran last week denouncing the information ministry’s tactics of barring news organizations from reporting the Gadhafi mediation.

The Ministry of Information last week officially denied any intention to exclude Mauritania’s journalist corps from the event.

According to a statement, the ministry said they had received permission to allow “a minimum number of journalists into the meetings,” adding that the ministry had “informed the heads of various media departments who then chose the journalists.”

Meanwhile,  former president Abdallahi's spokesman, Ahmed Samba told the Associated Press that Gadhafi's visit was meant to "impose the putschists' fait accompli."

During the March 11 talks, Gadhafi requested the African Union unfreeze Mauritanian assets frozen after the 2008 coup, and he urged countries to lift travel bans against junta leaders.

Take a picture and go to jail

In an unrelated incident, the Mauritanian government arrested two local journalists for snapping pictures of Mauritania's largest prison after an unnamed government source announced the possible release of jailed former Prime Minister Yehya Ould Al-Waqef and two of his ministers.  

Abdullah Ould Ashfagh Al-Mokhtar and Mohammad Al-Amin Ould Al-Mostapha both went to Nouakchott civil prison when they heard the rumor. Mostapha directed Al-Mokhtar to take pictures of the the Nouakchott civil prison after the rumor proved to be false, and the two were arrested soon after without being formally charged with a crime.

According to Al-Mokhtar, the two spent seven hours in custody between the prison and the police station in Dar al-Naim.

He told MENASSAT, "The guards treated us with total disrespect. They dragged us into the prison, where the officer in charge claimed that we were acting against the law which we fiercely denied. The laws, including the new media law, don’t ban us from taking pictures of the prison or any other public institution.”

"With the help of our supporters and through many phone calls, we were released before our case reached the higher levels of adjudication with the military regime," Al-Mokhtar said. "They confiscated the pictures we took of the prison and wanted to confiscate our cameras but we refused.”

There is no word whether the government will pursue the case further.