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Prime minister's bodyguards beat radio reporter; first lady sues newspaper editor

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders has condemned a 16 August 2007 attack on radio journalist Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Moghdad by the prime minister's bodyguards, as well as a charge of "libelling the First Lady" that was brought against newspaper editor Sidi Mohamed Ould Ebbe on 18 August, which could result in a prison sentence.

"Press freedom had made some progress in Mauritania, especially during the last elections, but the attack on Moghdad is a step backwards as regards the physical safety of journalists," the press freedom organisation said. "As for the First Lady, while she has the right to sue for libel, she should remember that she is a public figure who can expect to be exposed to comment and criticism from the media. In this kind of case, the right of response is preferable to legal action."

While covering a visit by Prime Minister Zein Ould Zeidane to the Health Ministry for state-owned Radio Mauritanie on 16 August, Moghdad left the news conference room for a few moments and was stopped by the prime minister's head bodyguard, Zein Ould Soueydatt, on his return. When Moghdad showed his press card and tried to enter, Soueydatt ordered his men to beat him.

In a statement condemning the attack, the High Authority for the Print and Broadcast Media (HAPA) said "no circumstances may justify the use of physical force against journalists doing their job."

The libel charge was brought against Ebbe, the editor-in-chief of the privately-owned daily "El Bedil Athalith", on 18 August in response to a complaint filed by the First Lady four days earlier about two stories accusing her of using her position to request funding for a charity she heads.

Ebbe told the press he was "ready for a compromise" and denied that the articles aimed to attack the First Lady. He has been questioned by the state prosecutor and is due to appear before a Nouakchott criminal court on 22 August. Under Mauritania's press law, he could be fined or imprisoned if convicted.

In October 2006, Reporters Without Borders assisted a commission comprised of independent journalists, jurists and senior officials tasked with drafting a new press law that would decriminalize press offences, including defamation. However, contrary to the commission's recommendations, jail terms were added to the law when it was promulgated in October 2006.

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