“The crisis in relations between the government and La Sentinelle, which has reached unprecedented proportions, is all the more surprising in a country with a long tradition of press freedom,” Reporters Without Borders said. “It bears all the hallmarks of an attempt by the government to asphyxiate the media group in an act of political revenge.”
The press freedom organisation added: “We condemn this behaviour by Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam, who often boasts of his country’s modernity but in this case is reacting in a retrograde fashion.”
La Sentinelle chairman Jean-Claude de l'Estrac told Reporters Without Borders: “The measures discriminating against us are not new. We have been subject to a systematic boycott by the authorities for the past four years. The harm that this is causing us is now assuming alarming proportions.”
In the 27 May incident, police stationed outside the capital’s main government building were given orders to deny entry to journalists from L'Express and 5-Plus Dimanche, two of La Sentinelle’s publications. A Radio One journalist was told: “These journalists are not invited to the finance minister’s news conference and will be turned away if they come.”
The political pressure was stepped up during the campaign for last May’s general elections, which returned the government to power. The prime minister, who accuses La Sentinelle of supporting the opposition, warned the editors of L'Express that they would pay the price.
The threat began to be carried out as soon as the new government took office in May. A directive was issued to all the ministries, parastatal agencies and libraries to cancel subscriptions to L'Express, depriving La Sentinelle of a not insignificant part of its income.
The political boycott of La Sentinelle began four years ago, after a series of critical articles and editorials in L’Express. Air Mauritius, in which the state has a majority stake, ceased in 2006 to make any of the group’s publications available on its flights. The same year, the prime minister told state information services to stop placing any advertising in La Sentinelle’s newspapers.
La Sentinelle asked the supreme court on 31 May to issue an injunction preventing state officials from denying its journalists access to public events. The court refused to issue the injunction but has set a hearing for 7 June at which the government will be asked to explain its behaviour.