Attacks on the Press 2003: Senegal

With its relatively free and diverse press, Senegal is seen as an example of democracy in West Africa. There are more than 10 daily newspapers and a plethora of weeklies and fortnightlies, many of which frequently criticize the government. Senegal also has numerous private, community, and foreign radio stations, and the constitution guarantees press freedom. However, some signs indicate that President Abdoulaye Wade, a former opposition leader who was elected in March 2000, is becoming less tolerant of independent media.

In October, Radio France Internationale (RFI) correspondent Sophie Malibeaux was accused of threatening public security and expelled from the country following an interview with a hard-line member of a rebel group from Casamance, a region in southern Senegal. Malibeaux had been covering a congress of rebel groups in the Casamance capital, Ziguinchor, aimed at preparing peace talks with the government. Before the gathering started, RFI aired Malibeaux’s interview with Alexandre Djiba, a member of the rebel movement who had boycotted the meeting.

Security agents detained Malibeaux on October 7 in Ziguinchor and flew her under military escort to Senegal’s capital, Dakar, where she was served an expulsion order and told to leave the country. This drew protests from local and international media organizations. RFI protested from Paris and managed to get the order suspended pending further discussions. In a later statement, RFI said one of its top directors went to Dakar from October 20 to 22 “to convince the Senegalese authorities to reverse their decision to expel Sophie Malibeaux.” The talks failed, and Malibeaux left Senegal on October 24. RFI reaffirmed its confidence in Sophie Malibeaux and condemned her expulsion.

Journalists said they viewed Malibeaux’s expulsion as a “warning” to the Senegalese press. They said the separatist war in Casamance, which has been ongoing for more than 20 years, remains a highly sensitive subject.

In July, journalist Abdoulatif Coulibaly received anonymous death threats after he published a book that was highly critical of President Wade. Coulibaly told CPJ that Wade accused him of trying to damage his reputation. The president then said that while he would not respond personally to the journalist’s work, others would. Coulibaly said he and his secretary began receiving threatening phone calls two days later. After Coulibaly and the Senegal Union of Information and Communication Professionals (SYNPICS) complained to authorities, a bodyguard was dispatched to protect him for a few weeks. But he told CPJ in November that he no longer had a guard and did not feel safe. He said the telephone threats had ceased, but his friends were receiving anonymous letters that cast aspersions on his character.

In March, SYNPICS and the West African Journalists’ Association complained to the government about police attacks on journalists, citing three serious incidents that had occurred in the space of three months. In March, riot police assaulted two journalists from the women’s community station Radio Manore FM, Fanta Badji and Cira Konate, while they were reporting on the forcible removal of residents from an illegal settlement in Dakar. Badji said that she and her colleague had identified themselves as journalists and were asking questions when the officers began to hit them.

In January, officers from the same riot squad beat Ibrahima Fall, a journalist with the daily newspaper L’Info 7, while he tried to cover the forcible removal of people from another settlement.

The most serious of the three cases involved Libasse Ndiaye, a cameraman for African Television News, a Senegal-based television company that acts as a local correspondent for foreign broadcasters such as France’s TV5. Security forces attacked Ndiaye during a demonstration at the end of 2002, and the journalist was subsequently hospitalized. SYNPICS said it launched a legal action on behalf of Ndiaye at the beginning of 2003, but that the case was still before the courts at year’s end.

Journalists told CPJ that harassment of the media in the second half of 2003 coincided with political tensions and accusations, covered in the press, that Wade’s ruling Senegalese Democratic Party was not delivering on electoral promises.

In September, Public Prosecutor Abdoulaye Gaye issued a statement accusing “certain press outlets” of “providing media backup for speeches designed to attack public institutions and especially targeting the President of the Republic, the national army and the judicial system.” The statement reminded journalists of legal provisions that impose criminal sanctions for reports that discredit the state, incite disorder, or disseminate “false news.” These provisions remain on the books, but authorities have not been using them, said local journalists, who fear that they could now be invoked.

Political tension heightened further in October, when unknown assailants brutally attacked opposition politician Talla Sylla with a hammer, leaving him with serious injuries that required hospitalization. Several newspapers said the police inquiry pointed to the president’s entourage. Investigators questioned a number of presidential bodyguards and a presidential adviser, according to local and international news reports. At the beginning of November, several thousand people marched through the streets of Dakar to protest against political violence and impunity.

While the print and radio broadcast media in Senegal are diverse and relatively free, the state controls the only national television station. According to local journalists, the state TV station tends to show “only the good things” about the president. Radio remains the most powerful channel for reaching the population, but television is also widely available.