Rhetoric heats up against media in Senegal

In Senegal, a fiery debate over press freedom has been pitting the independent press against the government in the aftermath of a brutal beating by police in June of two sports journalists after a soccer match.

The incident, which came amid a flurry of threats and violence against independent media, triggered  protests actions in Senegal, and recently in Chicago, and a news blackout as well as the formation of a local Committee for the Protection and Defense of Journalists. In a surprising twist however, authorities have accused the victims of triggering the incident by assaulting one of the policemen, a claim ridiculed by journalists. A senior judge is overseeing the case, but a larger national and international debate about Senegal’s state of press freedom is taking shape.

This week, in a 4,100-word editorial titled “The emergence of rogue journalism threatens our freedoms,” published in the state-run daily Le Soleil, ruling party Member of Parliament Iba Der Thiam chastised what he termed “rogue journalists” in Senegal’s independent press.

Thiam listed the names of more than 70 Senegalese journalists deemed “excellent,” before describing unnamed rogue journalists as corrupt, blackmailing, diploma-less, “terrorist” political militants obsessed with sensationalism, negative character assassination, and tarnishing the image of the nation. He went as far to compare their journalism to that of Radio Television des Milles Collines–a station infamous for its role in 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

On Tuesday, Farba Senghor, a government cabinet minister and the propaganda chief of the ruling Senegalese Democratic Party, declared that the party would boycott “a certain press” until the end of the year. Senghor, who was never publicly held accountable for threatening to “beat up” a journalist in 2007, recently called for an anti-media campaign in response to a coverage blackout of the party’s activities launched by the independent media.

Some Senegalese independent journalists CPJ spoke to said such hostile comments toward the media by officials, security forces, and members of the powerful Mouride Muslim brotherhood were partly fueled by the contemptuous rhetoric of President Abdoulaye Wade. Once an ally of the press who endured decades of repression as an opposition leader, Wade has since presided over more suppression of independent media than his predecessors. Since coming to office, police interrogation of journalists and, to a lesser extent, raids of newsrooms over political stories, has become routine. Wade has also reneged his pledges to scrap criminal libel laws, and frequently threatened to impose regulations on press cards.

“Read the press in Senegal, they are destructive. They are not constructive,” Wade declared in his most recent interview. Even as a distinguished guest of prominent American journalists last month, the president could not restrain his contempt for their Senegalese counterparts.

His fellow party member Thiam charged in his editorial that 50 percent of the reports of the Senegalese press are either false or unfounded. He went on to declare that criticism must be done “responsibly” because it is counterproductive to national interests of development and breeds “Afro pessimism.” To illustrate this point, he cited an alleged confidence from a government minister disclosing that a German investor who arrived in Senegal to build a plant changed his mind after reading a front-page story in a Senegalese paper reporting that the country was running a deficit.

Authorities frequently challenge the professionalism of Senegalese independent journalists. While political and financial pressures undermine the independence of free media allover Africa, Senegal’s press corps is among the most vibrant on the continent and the country is home to the second-best journalism school in Africa, according to a UNESCO rating.

Meanwhile, journalists continue to be summoned to the police for political stories. Last week, police blocked the distribution of private newspaper L’As and interrogated the editor over an interview of a judiciary union leader critical of the interior minister, according to local media reports and local journalists.