CPJ condemns criminal defamation convictions in Senegal

New York, May 15, 2008—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns criminal defamation convictions handed to two Senegalese journalists on Tuesday. The two were convicted for reporting on the contents of an anonymous letter critical of top security officials.

A criminal court in the capital, Dakar, sentenced Director Jules Diop and Editor-in-Chief Serigne Saliou Samb of private daily newspaper L’Observateur to six-month suspended prison sentences and 30 million CFA francs (US$72,000) in damages, defense lawyer Boubacar Cissé told CPJ. The ruling also ordered the journalists to publish the verdict in several newspapers. An appeal was immediately filed, Cissé said.

“We call on the appeals court to overturn the criminal convictions and prison sentences of Jules Diop and Serigne Saliou Samb,” said Tom Rhodes, CPJ’s Africa Program Coordinator. “Senegal’s pattern of criminal defamation prosecutions creates an intimidating atmosphere that leads to self-censorship. We urge President Abdoulaye Wade to honor his pledge to decriminalize defamation.”

Diop and Samb were charged following a complaint filed by former Interior Minister Ousmane Ngom over a January 11 story reporting on a letter reportedly addressed to Ngom and national Police Chief Assane Ndoye from an anonymous group of police personnel, according to local journalists and news reports. The letter, which was sent to the paper exclusively, contained allegations of embezzlement and fraud in police management. Diop told CPJ the story included reactions of the officials through their spokespersons.

Ngom was quoted as saying in a January statement that it “pains him” to press charges against journalists “due to his commitment to press freedom,” Senegalese online news Web site Nettali reported. However, the statement goes on, “when you confuse a press offense with a common law offense (defamation) committed by a public means of dissemination [of information], it is necessary for the courts to remind you that freedom of the press comes with responsibility.”

Ngom’s comments reflect the long-standing reticence of Senegalese officials to decriminalize defamation despite President Abdoulaye Wade’s 2004 call to local media stakeholders to submit proposals for reforms, according to CPJ research. Authorities have yet to react to the proposals, and in November, CPJ wrote to President Wade urging him to finally implement his 2004 commitment.

Diop and Samb are the latest journalists of L’Observateur to be convicted on criminal defamation charges following the September 2006 convictions of Alioune Ndiaye and Saliou Sambe over a story alleging corruption, according to CPJ research. L’Observateur is published by Futurs Médias, a media group owned by Senegalese musician Youssou Ndour.