In early August, President Abdoulaye Wade offered a stunning apology to foreign donors who had hurriedly assisted the West African desert nation with US$23 million in emergency famine aid. The president had personally appealed for the money, but then rejected it and charged that the Senegalese media had misreported conditions in the drought-stricken countryside. After a three-day visit to the afflicted region, an angry Wade returned to the capital, Dakar–in what was an embarrassing incident for both the government and the press–to issue a statement that threats of famine had been exaggerated. The president sacked his press adviser over the incident, and Senegalese journalists conceded that they might have overstated the situation.
Until recently, Senegal was known as a beacon of free speech in West Africa. But in September, several Senegalese news professionals told CPJ that the current administration has jeopardized the country’s free press. The local media, which have engaged in healthy competition with the state media since independence in 1960, suffered little censorship under the country’s liberal founder, Léopold Sédar-Senghor, and his chosen heir, Abdou Diouf.
But, according to Senegalese journalists, the March 2000 election of Wade, who had been a member of the opposition, brought the press several new challenges. In fact, in the two years since Wade’s election, 17 Senegalese journalists have been convicted of criminal press offenses or harassed or beaten by ruling-party supporters–while only 10 suffered such abuses between 1982 and March 2000.
Local journalists also charge that the Information Ministry, dismantled in 2000 and integrated into the Office of the President, has become President Wade’s personal public relations office. And coverage of two issues in particular has proven tricky for Senegalese reporters: the president’s links to the Islamic Mouride sect, to which he belongs, and his attempts to broker peace with the leaders of an armed insurgency in the lush southern Casamance Region.
Although Senegal is secular by law, Islamic brotherhoods have traditionally exerted tremendous influence on society and politics. Lately, these religious fraternities have extended their reach to media ownership, with some of Senegal’s largest media companies, such as the Wal Fadjiri Group, now partially or entirely owned by prominent spiritual leaders or groups.
Non-Muslim journalists, such as Jean-Baptiste Sané of the state broadcaster Radio-Télé Senegal (RTS), say that Christians and other religious groups are given short shrift in the state media. Sané and other journalists also describe President Wade’s appointment of a retired general and stalwart of the ruling Democratic Party to head the RTS as a government ploy to restrict access to information about the military campaign against the rebel Movement of Casamance Democratic Forces. On September 18, the rebels issued a threatening letter accusing a dozen journalists by name of unfairly criticizing the movement’s cause.