Senegal's large and diverse press is one of the strongest in West Africa. The constitution guarantees press freedom, and dozens of privately owned newspapers and radio stations carry a wide variety of political views. Yet journalists can still be jailed for what they report, despite President Abdoulaye Wade's 2000 campaign promise to decriminalize press offenses.
Tensions between Wade and the private press over his failure to deliver on such promises came to a head in July with the two-week imprisonment of Madiambal Diagne, publication director of the independent daily Le Quotidien (The Daily). Diagne was detained on July 9 and charged with publishing secret documents, publishing false information, and committing acts "likely to compromise public security" in articles that alleged fraud in the customs service and government interference in the judiciary. Prior to his arrest, Diagne was summoned to police headquarters and pressed to reveal his sources, which he refused to do.
Diagne's imprisonment sparked a wave of protests by journalists, press freedom organizations, and human rights groups in and outside Senegal. Nearly all of Senegal's private newspapers and radio stations observed a news blackout on July 12, and journalists organized a series of demonstrations in the capital, Dakar, to protest what they said was a government attempt to muzzle the press.
In response, Prime Minister Macky Sall told the state-owned daily Le Soleil, "Journalists are not above the law. Those who have chosen to disobey the law will see the law being applied, and we will make them see that the country is well led." Diagne was granted a provisional release on July 26, but the criminal charges were left pending.
While all three charges against Diagne were punishable by imprisonment, it was the charge of committing acts "likely to compromise public security" that enabled authorities to place Diagne in "preventive" detention. The charge is defined in the Penal Code's controversial Article 80, which imposes a three- to five-year prison sentence and a hefty fine on anyone found guilty of "acts that might compromise public security or cause serious political problems." Following a meeting with French President Jacques Chirac in France in late July, Wade publicly promised to repeal Article 80; upon his return to Senegal, the president announced that the justice minister had created two committees to reform the Penal Code.
Other laws mandate prison penalties for press offenses such as libel. For example, French national Christian Costeaux, who ran a Web site about tourism in Senegal, was sentenced in absentia to a year in prison on libel charges in January. According to Agence France-Presse, the case was brought by Robert Sagna, mayor of Ziguinchor, a city in the southern region of Casamance, and two local hotel owners, who claimed that Costeaux had libeled them in an article alleging the presence of organized crime in the region.
In October, Wade called for the decriminalization of press offenses and urged local journalists associations to submit proposals for reforms. No legislation had been introduced at year's end.
Relations between Radio France Internationale (RFI) and Senegalese authorities thawed in 2004, and the broadcaster reopened its Senegal bureau in August. RFI had closed the bureau in protest in October 2003, after Senegalese authorities expelled correspondent Sophie Malibeaux following an interview with a hard-line member of a Casamance separatist group.
The state owns the only national television station. According to local journalists, state TV is generally biased toward the president. At a forum organized in December by the government's broadcasting regulatory council, several opposition politicians complained that Wade's Democratic Party dominated the station's programming, and that opposition parties were not given equal access.