It is no secret that Africa has been facing a serious crisis when it comes to the right to freedom of expression particularly digital rights. Internet shutdowns are on the rise, breach of privacy is becoming common, and arbitrary charges and prosecution of journalists, bloggers and common citizens over critical opinions expressed on the internet are rampant. While this phenomenon is not solely restricted to Africa, many African governments have become increasingly notorious for clamping down on activists, bloggers, and journalists who speak out against authoritarian regimes and government wrongdoing.
Mauritania is infamous for its tight restrictions on freedom of speech and expression. So when two bloggers are unlawfully detained for months without trial, it is just another day in the office for the Public Prosecutor and the powers that he is beholden to. Well, for the rest of us, it is a cause of concern.
Two famous Mauritania bloggers Cheikh Ould Jiddou and Abderrahmane Weddady have become the latest victims of state attacks on free speech. The two who were arrested in Nouakchott, the country's capital on 22 March and made to appear before the Economic Crimes Unit (ECU) on charges of ‘malicious accusation’, and detained at the central prison are yet to be released two months on.
Notably, the two had prior to their arrest investigated and reported on allegations of corruption involving the country’s president, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz. The charges of 'malicious accusation' levelled against the bloggers were premised on their facebook posts which condemned the government's alleged corruption. They wrote on Facebook about the alleged ties of Ould Abdel Aziz to a US $2 billion bank account in Dubai. Jiddou and Weddady's criticisms against the government were informed by media reports which stated that Emirati authorities had frozen the bank accounts belonging to Mauritanian officials at the request of the US Department of the Treasury, in its fight against money laundering.
When questioned by the police about his sources and why he did not wait for the state to investigate the matter, Weddady stated that the news of the frozen assets was within the public domain having been reported online by foreign media, and that he has “no faith in a serious investigation into any crime involving the president and those around him”.
The two who had their national IDs and passports confiscated by state authorities were first questioned as witnesses by the ECU on 7 March, following a call for a judicial inquiry into corruption allegations. Although they were released on the same day, they were subsequently arrested on 22 March on the grounds of spreading “false accusations” against Ould Abdel Aziz contrary to Article 348 of Mauritania’s Penal Code. Three days after their arrest, police searched their houses without warrants and seized Weddady's computer.
Despite several attempts by Weddady and Jiddou’s lawyers to secure the freedom of the bloggers, the Mauritanian Supreme Court has consistently rejected the lawyers’ request for bail. Amnesty International has come out in support of the two bloggers by condemning the government's approach in addressing the issue. Speaking on behalf of Amnesty International, Kiné Fatim Diop, Amnesty International’s West Africa Campaigner stated:
Weddady and Ould Jiddou are known for their blog posts denouncing human rights violations and have inspired other young people across the country to exercise their right to freedom of expression including online. Their unlawful detention shows that the Mauritanian government is determined to crush dissent and use charges of "malicious news’’ against perceived critical voices in the country. Two months after their arrest, Weddady and Ould Jiddou are still languishing in detention, and we are calling for their immediate and unconditional release."
Whether it has been internet shutdowns or arbitrary arrests of journalists and bloggers, there is no doubt that more aggressive use of technologies than ever before seen are being adopted by governments to stifle citizens’ rights to information, privacy, free speech, assembly and association across Africa.
According to Kiné Fatim Diop:
The Mauritanian authorities should be opened to debates, and criticism from human rights defenders, activists, and journalists. Respect for and protection of the right to freedom of expression should be a priority for the authorities, ahead of a Presidential election next month. We are urging the authorities to release Weddady and Ould Jiddou and respect their rights to peacefully express their opinions.”
While we appreciate that there are instances that malicious information may be published as was in the case of the government of eSwatini, it is imperative that governments remember that not all information is fake or malicious news. It is for this very reason that media houses and bloggers associations are in place to ensure factual truth. Arbitrary arrests and prosecution of journalists, bloggers, and even common citizens is most certainly not the way forward.
With the current prevailing culture where the majority of governments seem to loathe any form of accountability to the masses whom they purport to serve, freedom of speech is constantly on trial. The culture of 'see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil' has to be nipped in the bud as there are clearly no two ways about it.
Given the fact that the two bloggers face a jail term of 6 months to five years each if convicted, and with the court seemingly reluctant to approve their new bail application, it is likely that the government and by extension the public prosecutor will string this charade out as long as they can in the hope that the story will blow over and the bloggers will become a long-forgotten footnote in a book somewhere. As long as freedom of speech is on trial, these two bloggers cannot be wished away as an inconvenience to a runaway government.
Header Image Credit: Cheikh Ould Jiddou and Abderrahmane Weddady/Amnesty International