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Polisario Front briefly detains two Australian filmmakers at refugee camp

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders has deplored the action of the Polisario Front's security services in briefly detaining Australian documentary filmmakers Violeta Ayala and Daniel Fallshaw during the first week of May 2007 near the Rabouni refugee camp, 25 km from Tindouf in southwestern Algeria.

"Western Sahara under Moroccan control and the refugee camps in Algeria are in the areas that are very hard for journalists to visit and work in," the press freedom organisation said. "The Sahrawi population on both sides of the border are the first to suffer from this information blackout. We urge the authorities concerned to respect the work of the press and to put an end to such political and administrative obstacles."

Ayala and Fallshaw often visit the refugee camps in Algeria to film Sahrawi families whose members are separated by the wall Morocco built a few kilometres from the Algerian border in the early 1980s ( ).

The two journalists were detained by Polisario Front security officials on 2 May and their mobile phone was confiscated. They were then taken to an office used by the security services, where they were held for about five hours. After UN officials intervened, the journalists were able to leave the Rabouni camp and go to Tindouf, from where they caught a plane to France a few days later.

The Polisario Front officials criticised the interest the two journalists took in black members of the Sahrawi population, Reporters Without Borders has learned. Ayala told the press freedom organisation that she saw cases of enslavement.

"The fact that they are fighting for their independence does not mean that Polisario's leaders can allow themselves to commit such human rights violations," she said. "It is our duty as journalists to denounce such practices. We originally went there to work on the problem of separated families. But during our stay, we witnessed scenes of slavery."

The Polisario Front has denied detaining the two journalists.

The situation is equally difficult for journalists in Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara. Reporters Without Borders has registered many cases of journalists being detained, expelled or even physically attacked by the authorities.

Norwegian journalists Anne Torhild Nilsen and Radmund Steinsvag are still waiting for permission to travel to the Western Sahara capital of El Aaiún although they have made repeated requests at the Moroccan embassy in Oslo and the communication ministry in Rabat (see IFEX alert of 26 October 2006).

Swedish freelance photographer Lars Björk was arrested in El Aaiún in February for taking photos of a demonstration by young Sahrawis waving the Polisario Front flag (see IFEX alert of 20 February 2007). He was expelled the next day.

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