A month after a junta calling itself the Military Council for Justice and Democracy seized power in Mauritania and promised to reestablish democracy, Reporters Without Borders has written to the head of the junta, Col. Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, who took over as president, recommending 12 measures his government should take to establish real press freedom in Mauritania.
"You are undoubtedly aware of the crucial role played by the African press today in promoting and sustaining democracy, by serving as a mirror in which nations can see themselves," Reporters Without Borders said in the letter, which was handed in to the Mauritanian embassy in Paris.
The letter continued: "To achieve the goals you announced when taking power, it is essential that you allow Mauritania’s journalists a space in which they can practice their trade calmly, responsibly, free at last of fear of the police and repression. We would like to assure the Mauritanian authorities, whoever they are, of our availability to help them do this."
Ousted President Maouiya Ould Taya’s government showed little respect for press freedom. It exploited a draconian press law to censor or close down critical newspapers without hesitation. It imposed heavy prison sentences on journalists despite the disapproval of international organisations including the United Nations and its agencies, and despite the fact that this violated the treaties and charters guaranteeing civil liberties which Mauritania had signed.
Reporters Without Borders has recommended that the new government in Nouakchott should:
Repeal laws that suppress freedoms
Repeal article 11 of the law of 25 July 1991 concerning press freedom, which gives the interior ministry discretionary power to use prior censorship. This article says: "the interior ministry may, by decree, ban the circulation, distribution or sale of newspapers (...) that undermine the principles of Islam or the credibility of the state, causing harm to the general interest or disturbing the peace and public security."
Abolish the requirement to deposit copies of a newspaper with the authorities prior to distribution, which gives the ministry of interior, post and telecommunications or the state prosecutor 48 hours to issue a censorship order.
Abolish the "morality investigation" by the political police, which is currently an unavoidable precondition for obtaining a permit to publish a newspaper.
Create new bodies
Set up an independent council with the job of arbitrating in disputes between the press and society. The council should be free of political, military, business or religious influence and should take its decisions in a spirit of fairness and moderation. Its members should include Mauritanian journalists, either as individuals or as members of representative and independent organisations. It should champion press freedom in Mauritania while having the power to issue warnings or sanctions against news media that violate professional ethics or break the law.
Decriminalise press offences such as defamation and the publication of inaccurate reports, and define them clearly under civil law. For an act of defamation to be punishable, it should be demonstrated and proven in court and should consist of more than just harming the image of a public figure or company. The punishment set by the law (such as right of reply, court-ordered publication of a retraction, or fine) should be proportional to the gravity of the offence.
Ensure that the principle of the confidentiality of journalists’ sources is enshrined in the law, so that journalists are not treated as police auxiliaries.
Introduce new rules
Establish a code of conduct and professional ethics for Mauritanian journalists based on proposals made by journalists through their representative bodies. The government should recognise the importance of this code, and should undertake to respect it and to help the profession ensure that it is respected.
Promulgate a law clearly defining the criteria by which press cards are issued and withdrawn. Assign responsibility for issuing and withdrawing press cards to an independent body which is free of any political, religious or business influence and which is recognised by the profession.
Allow privately-owned radio and TV stations to operate throughout the country.
Guarantee opposition and civil society access to the state-owned media.
Introduce fair and transparent criteria for state agencies to follow when placing advertisements in the news media.
Promulgate a law giving public service journalists the right to strike.