Mauritanian military junta responds to critics, reverses two-day media crackdown



 
The Mauritanian government reversed two moves cracking-down on independent media opposition outlet Taqadoumy - after people took to the streets to protest ongoing media repression by the military junta that seized power in a bloodless coup last year.
 
By SAID AHMED OULD BAB and MOHAMMAD SALEM
 
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Demonstrators running for cover. Mauritanian human rights activists and media organizations were dispersed during a demonstration for jailed journalist Abu Al-Abbas Ould Braham (March 16) who was released today. © Mohammad Salem

NOUAKCHOTT, March 18, 2009 (MENASSAT) – As journalists, activists, and human rights advocates gathered to protest the recent crackdown on media opposition outlets on March 17, the planned sit-in took an unexpected turn - developing into a debate with Mauritanian ministers.

Shortly after the open debate, security authorities in Mauritania received an order to release Abu Al-Abbas Ould Braham, a journalist and outspoken university professor who was arrested on Monday night (March 16) for his critical stance against the policies of the military junta that seized power in a bloodless coup last year.

The police did not provide an explanation for Ould Braham's arrest but said that it was in relation to the articles he writes regularly for Taqadoumy.

The General Prosecution also lifted the ban on Taqadoumy e-newspaper, which was closed down on Tuesday (March 17) for publishing "material containing libel, defamation, abuse and slander.”

The decision came in a court order issued by the Penal Chamber in the Nouakchott Court, which stated that the e-journal Taqadoumy and its websites continue to publish libelous material against "regular" citizens and "associations."

"The website also published false rumors harming the general and private interests, and value. Hence, the newspaper no longer respects the legal boundaries of free media, and exposed the society to danger,” the court statement read.

Authorities, however, did not release Mauritanian journalist Abdul Fattah Ould Abeidna, editor-in-chief of Al-Aqsa magazine, who has been in solitary confinement in Dar al-Naim prison since December 1, 2008.

Taking to the streets

The two-day crackdown, preceded by a number of repressive acts against media workers, forced journalists to take action.

On March 16, human rights activists, journalists and free speech advocates organized a sit-in near the UN headquarters in Nouakchott with several Mauritanian media outlets to protest the arrest of Ould Braham.

One human rights worker, Biram Ould Al-Da Ould Aabidi, took part in the sit-in. “During our demonstration, participants were subject to violent and harsh attacks from gun-wielding policemen, who used tear gas, and physically attacked unarmed civilians."

According to Ould Aabidi, Al-Horra journalist Hashem Sidi Salem and photojournalist at Sahara Media, Habib Ould Mohammad al-Amin, were assaulted and dragged through the streets by security agents.

“We denounce this barbaric and savage act which proves the dishonesty in the statements of the head of the coup, when he (General Aziz) claimed (in Akjoujat) that his government is providing safety for journalists and opinion writers, when he was doing the exact opposite,” Ould Aabidi said.

Meanwhile, a minister of the Military Council in Mauritania, Mohammad Ould Amid, a spokesman for the President of the Council, apologized to the journalists for the repression they were subjected to at the sit-in on Monday night .

In a press conference, Ould Amid said that General Mohammad Ould Abdul Aziz "condemns this method of dealing with the press," as well as any forms of media suppression and exclusion, a veiled reference to the barring of journalists during Libyan president Moammar Gadhafi's visit last week.

Gadhafi unsuccessfully attempted to mediate between the ousted Mauritanian president Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi and the military junta leader General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.

The government limited the attendance of journalists to the event, prompting similar accusations of a clampdown on free speech.

Before today's announcement of Ould Braham's release, government spokesman Ould Amid had said that president Aziz denounced the arrest of the journalist, "But the matter was in the hands of the courts now."

Fomenting Mauritania's bad public image

In a phone call with MENASSAT, opposition political activist Badi Ould Ayno, denounced the ban and Ould Braham's arrest, calling them setbacks to Mauritania's political progress.

“The arrest of Ould Braham, irrespective of the content of his articles, is something everyone can’t help but denounce," he said.

Ould Ayno added that the move against Taqadoumy and the arrest of a journalist associated with the journal reinforces the continuing erosion of media reforms made prior to the 2008 coup d'etat.

According to Ould Ayno, "The media crackdown sends a very negative message to the world at a time when the Mauritanian people were looking forward to solving the current political crisis that the country can no longer handle."

Commenting on the Ould Braham's arrest, Ould Ayno said, “Arresting people who express their opinion is stupid and unfair. The authorities should punish those behind the arrests, those who aim, whether they like it or not, to distort the image of the regime and worsen an already stressed situation at a time when all the parties need more understanding and acceptance of the other.”

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