Detention of critical journalists in Mauritania
This Monitor update covers developments relating to the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Mauritania from May 2018 to March 2023.
On 22nd June 2019, Mauritania held presidential elections, with former general and defense minister Mohamed Ould Ghazouani winning 52 percent of the vote. The opposition rejected the results, citing irregularities.
The government shut down mobile internet access the day after election day and it was not restored until 3rd July 2019. In addition to the government curtailing access to information and free expression via the Internet, in the runup to the 2019 presidential election, Amnesty International documented violations of the right to freedom of association, which included the arrests of several activists and political opposition members as well as the arrests of approximately 100 protesters in post-election related demonstrations.
In February 2020, Mauritania joined the UN Human Rights Council, despite an outcry from international human rights organisations, which cited the country's poor human rights record and ongoing issues with slavery, discrimination, and gender equality as precluding the country from being eligible to be part of the Council.
#Mauritania is still offline following contested elections, with mobile data cut followed by fixed-lines/wifi limited to hotels and official staff [📊]— NetBlocks (@netblocks) June 27, 2019
See also @AmnestyWARO report on #HumanRights impact:
According to Human Rights Watch, freedom of expression is curtailed in Mauritania, especially for those critical of the authorities:
"Prosecutors have an arsenal of repressive legislation to punish critics for nonviolent speech, including harsh and overbroad laws on terrorism, cybercrime, apostasy, and criminal defamation used to jail human rights defenders, activists, and bloggers".
In December 2021, Article 19 drew attention to the potential consequences of a law on the protection of national symbols and the authority of the state that could potentially restrict freedom of expression, calling the language in the law "vague and imprecise". The law was passed on 9th November 2021 in the National Assembly. The Mauritanian Journalists Association also expressed its concerns over the bill, which grants broad powers to the government to decide when information and communication channels have been used to “undermine the authority of the state and its symbols”. The law creates a chilling effect on media and journalists which could lead to self-censorship.
According to Freedom House, the country has several privately-owned media outlets and publications as alternative sources of information to state-run media. However, in Reporters Without Borders most recent report for 2022, Mauritania ranked 97 out of 180 countries due to a number of issues, including evidence of overt political and business control of media in the country.
Intimidation of Journalists and Critical Voices
The Media Foundation for West Africa documented a number of cases in which the authorities cracked down on independent and critical voices with detentions, as follows:
- In January 2020, blogger Mohamed Ali Ould Abdel Aziz and journalists Abdou Ould Tajeddine and Cheikh Ould Mami were detained for a social media post in which they criticised President Mohamed Cheikh El Ghazouani and his government.
- On 24th July 2019, journalist Camara Seydi Moussa with La Nouvelle Expression newspaper was arbitrarily detained and then released several days later.
- Mohamed Ould Mkheitir was sentenced to death for blasphemy in January 2014 for a critical Facebook post, and despite a court order for his release, he remained imprisoned until 29th July 2019 when he was released following an appeal Court decision that commuted his death sentence to two years’ imprisonment.
Mauritanian authorities should release journalists Seydi Moussa Camara & Ahmedou Ould al-Wadea, restore internet access throughout the country, and allow journalists to report on the results of the country's presidential elections without fear of reprisal.https://t.co/bNilWz22rZ— Committee to Protect Journalists (@pressfreedom) July 4, 2019
A law on association exists but is considered restrictive; the government exercises a degree of control over the right to participate in as well as form and register organisations. In a UPR report submitted to the UN Human Rights Council on 9th July 2020, CIVICUS and Réseau Ouest Africain des Défenseurs des Droits Humains (West African Human Right Defenders Network) found that organisations in Mauritania
"Working to end slavery, speaking out against ethnic and racial discrimination and seeking justice for past human rights abuses, have never received authorisation to operate, despite applying for legal status".
In addition, in its UPR submission to the UN Human Rights Council covering the 2015 to 2020 cycle for Mauritania, Frontline Defenders expressed concerns related to limitations on freedom of association, namely the obstructions to register that organisations working on controversial issues face.
Arrests of WHRDs and HRDs
In addition, the above-mentioned UPR submission from Frontline Defenders cited two cases of persecution against women human rights defenders - WHRDs - as follows:
- In October 2019, WHRD Seniyara Haidara was arrested for criticising the irregularities around the 2019 election.
- On 13th April 2020, WHRD Mariem Cheikh was arrested for speaking out on social media regarding the issues of slavery and discrimination in the country.
Frontline Defenders also documented the authorities obstructing the right to freedom of association by arresting activists for meeting:
- On 13 February 2020, members of Alliance pour la Refondation de la Mauritanie (Alliance for the Refoundation of the Mauritanian State) met in Nouakchott at a residence owned by WHRD Mekfoula Mint Brahim. That day, police arrested 14 human rights defenders who had been present at the meeting.
Reprisals against HRDs
In October 2022, the African Commission gave recommendations to the government of Mauritania after reviewing its periodic report on human rights covering 2018 to 2021. Recommendations focused on the protection of the rights to peaceful assembly as well as association, namely that the government must:
"Put an end to all forms of intimidation and reprisals against human rights defenders who cooperate with the African human rights system".
On 10th February 2023, human rights defender Souvi Ould Jibril Ould Cheine passed away due to ill-treatment while in detention. The HRD had focused his efforts on creating a more inclusive and just society in Mauritania.
The right to peaceful assembly is protected under the constitution but it requires approval to organise and hold a public action. The authorities banned protests by the opposition immediately following the June 2019 election. The following cases highlight the ongoing issues that prevent citizens full exercise of the right to peaceful assembly, including the arrests of protesters, police disruption of protests, and use of excessive force.
- On 12th October 2018, activists held a peaceful sit-in outside the National Assembly to call for the release of the imprisoned president of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolition Movement - Biram Dah Abeid. Police use of excessive force to disperse the sit-in left at least nine protesters with injuries.
- On 28th March 2019, police dispersed a protest in the capital where demonstrators had gathered to demand reform of the electoral commission.
- In September 2022, protesters gathered to demonstrate against a new language law and were met by security forces that arrested several demonstrators during clashes.
- 2022 was also marked with protests over rising fuel prices. From 15th July 2022, demonstrators gathered in several cities to express frustrations over a 30 percent increase in the cost of fuel.