- Just as the new Mauritanian regime announced its plans to lift the heavy censorship on the national press, editors are intimidated by the arrest of a journalist and his assistant. While there is general optimism regarding the reintroduction of press freedom, the military leadership is sending out mixed signals.
It was a seldom occasion. The independent press in Mauritania, along with other pro-democracy stakeholders, celebrated the August military coup in the country as a positive development. The transitional strongman, Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, quickly signalled his willingness to listen to all parts of society and to introduce real reforms advancing human rights and democracy.
During the last few weeks, Colonel Vall's promises were starting to materialise. In October, during a meeting with press freedom groups, the new Mauritanian leader promised that "very soon" the country's repressive "Press Freedom Law" was to reformed. A commission was already working on the issue.
In particular, Colonel Vall publicly announced that the law's article 11 "has ceased to exist" after his explicit orders not to make use of it. Article 11 regulates the government's ample powers to censor national newspapers on almost any occasion. During the ancien regime, the article was widely made use of to regularly stop the publication of newspapers when these contained one single critical article.
Colonel Vall further informed that Mauritanian authorities would from now on be more relaxed regarding foreign media being distributed or broadcasted nationally. In particular, the new leader allowed Radio France Internationale (RFI) to immediately resume its broadcasting on FM bandwidth in the capital, Nouakchott.
Editors from Mauritania's few truly independent newspapers told afrol News that they had a strong faith in the new regime's willingness to reintroduce press freedom. Mamadou Sy, chief editor of the 'Eveil Hebdo' says that real progress already has been made.
Nevertheless, the first dark skied have already appeared on the horizon. The first arrest of media personnel since Colonel Vall's coup took place recently and there is a fear that the new regime does not understand the real implications of press freedom.
Today, the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) informed that Moulaye Najim, a journalist with 'Points Chauds' newspaper, and his assistant Abdel Ould Sejad were jailed on 19 October for allegedly publishing "pornographic pictures" taken at Nouakchott Civilian Prison. Mr Najim has since been released, but Mr Sejad remains in jail.
The State Prosecutor said the charge against Mr Najim and Mr Sejad is provided for under Section 231 of the Penal Code and Section 05 of the law on broadcast media productions. These sections impose prison terms of one to three years on "anyone who broadcasts or publish images showing total human nudity which are unacceptable." Colonel Vall has not indicated any intentions of changing this legislation.
According to MFWA, 'Points Chauds' published "pornographic pictures" of Nagi Ahmed Jiddou, a prisoner who had been sentenced to 21 years in jail for murdering his mother. The pictures were reportedly taken at the office of the prison warden at Nouakchott Civilian Prison, thus documenting wrongdoings at the prison.
The journalists were sent to the same prison, placing them at the mercy of the prison officers whose practices they have denounced, MFWA regretted. The foundation protested the arrest as international agreements say that there should be no prison sentences for press offences.
The arrests of Mr Najim and Mr Sejad have cast a doubt over how far the new regime is willing to go in its human rights and democracy reforms.
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