New York, July 5, 2006 — The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the arrest and imprisonment on June 29 of Moustapha Sow, a Senegalese journalist who was convicted in February of defaming a local businessman. An arrest warrant was issued in February but carried out only last week, local sources told CPJ.
“It is disturbing that a journalist is being imprisoned almost two years after President Abdoulaye Wade promised to decriminalize press offenses,” said Joel Simon, executive director of CPJ. “The existence of criminal defamation laws belies Senegal’s claims to be a leader in press freedom in Africa.”
Sow, who is publication director of the Dakar-based private newspaper L’Office, was sentenced on February 10 to six months in jail for allegedly defaming businessman Bara Tall in a series of critical articles. The articles in L’Office claimed that Tall was involved in a high-profile corruption scandal involving public works projects in the central city of Thiès. Tall, who denies the allegation, brought a defamation case against Sow in response, claiming that the series constituted “a media lynching” which had negatively affected his business and reputation abroad, according to local news reports.
It was unclear why the arrest warrant against Sow was not previously executed. The procedure “takes time,” said Amadou Diallo, director of criminal affairs at Senegal’s Justice Ministry, who added that the warrant was not suspended despite an appeal process launched by Sow’s lawyer. “This is a person who published almost a hundred articles against one person,” Diallo said. “It gives the impression that this is no longer journalism – it’s a dogged campaign.”
Although criminal defamation cases are frequently brought against journalists in Senegal, it is rare for journalists to serve prison time even when convicted, CPJ research indicates. In some cases, judges hand down suspended sentences; in others, they decline to issue an arrest warrant. However, a CPJ special report in 2005 found that laws criminalizing press offenses such as defamation continue to chill press freedom in Senegal. (To read the special report, click here: http://www.cpj.org/Briefings/2005/senegal_05/senegal_05.html .)
The last Senegalese journalist jailed for a significant period in connection with his work was Madiambal Diagne, owner and managing editor of the popular independent newspaper Le Quotidien . Diagne spent over two weeks in jail under “provisional detention” in July 2004 in connection with articles about alleged executive interference in the judiciary and corruption in the customs service. The case against him was dropped in May 2006 before a verdict was reached. (For more information, see CPJ’s alert: http://www.cpj.org/news/2006/africa/senegal04may06na.html .) Diagne’s imprisonment led Senegalese journalists to press for legal reform to protect the media from criminal prosecution.