Government vehicle seen in Senegalese newsroom attacks

New York, August 19, 2008—The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by reports that a government vehicle was used to ransack the offices of two Senegalese independent newspapers on Sunday. The attacks came just three days after a top official threatened unspecified retaliation against the papers over critical stories.

A dozen unidentified men stormed the offices of the daily 24 Heures Chrono at about 8:30 p.m. Sunday and assaulted driver and production clerk Ablaye Dièye, the only staffer on the premises, Managing Editor El Malick Seck told CPJ. The assailants stole Dièye’s mobile phone and smashed about 10 computers before speeding away in a white Toyota L200 4×4 bearing an official “AD” (Administration) license plate, he said.

About 15 minutes later and some 400 meters (1,300 feet) away, assailants riding in a vehicle of the same description stormed the offices of L’As, attacking staffers with pepper spray, and destroying two computers, including the paper’s file server, Editor-in-Chief Cheikh Oumar Ndao told CPJ.

At a third newspaper, Le Courrier, Managing Editor Pape Amadou Gaye told CPJ that he received five anonymous phone calls warning of an imminent attack. After he saw a white Toyota 4×4 parked some 40 meters (130 feet) from his office around 10 p.m., Gaye said he summoned police and the vehicle left.

Information Minister Abdoul Aziz Sow did not return CPJ’s calls for comments, but Agence France-Presse quoted an Interior Ministry spokesman as saying that police had launched an investigation.

“We are disturbed by these reports that a group of thugs in a government vehicle could systematically ransack the offices of critical newspapers,” said CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney. “Senegal’s reputation as a beacon of press freedom in West Africa has dimmed in recent years. The authorities must begin to reverse this decline by showing that those responsible for these attacks will be held to account.”

 The attacks came just three days after Air Transport Minister Farba Senghor, who is also the propaganda chief of the ruling Senegalese Democratic Party, threatened unspecified retaliation against four private newspapers—L’As, 24 Heures Chrono, Le Courrier, and the weekly Pic—over critical stories. 24 Heures Chrono recently published an internal audit report critical of Senghor’s salary as board chairman of a private bus company.

In a press statement published in state-run daily Le Soleil last Thursday, Senghor accused the newspapersof “orchestrating” a series of “excessive attacks” against him “with a manifest intent to harm.” The statement added: “There is no difference between verbal, written and physical violence. Press freedom does not at all give a journalist the right to continually attack honest citizens with impunity.” He warned that he reserved the right to retaliate in self-defense.

Senghor, in a statement published today in Le Soleil, denied any involvement in the Sunday attacks. While criticizing the attacks, he also suggested the newspapers may have provoked them. “Violence is no one’s perquisite, and when one saws the wind, one should expect to reap the whirlwind,” he wrote.

Senghor, who was never publicly held accountable for threatening to “beat up” a journalist in 2007, called for a campaign against critical media in response to a coverage blackout of the party’s activities launched by the independent media. The blackout was part of a wave of protests to demand justice in the aftermath of a brutal beating by police in June of two sports journalists after a soccer match.

For L’As, it was the second incident in recent weeks. Police blocked distribution of a late July edition and questioned Managing Editor Mamadou Thierno Tall and reporter Daouda Thiam for publishing comments by the leader of a judiciary trade union critical of the justice minister, according to news reports.

Prominent editor Madiambal Diagne, a member of the newly formed Committee for the Protection and Defense of Journalists, told CPJ the group has formally asked media houses to hire security to guarantee their own protection, adding that state was failing to adequately protect journalists.

Senegal, once considered a haven of press freedom in Africa, has seen an unprecedented level of hostile government rhetoric, and total impunity for attacks and threats against independent media this year.