New York, September 12, 2008—The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by a Senegalese judge’s decision today to sentence a newspaper editor to three years in prison on criminal charges in connection with an editorial about President Abdoulaye Wade and his son. Today’s ruling came on the heels of Thursday’s sentencing of 12 individuals to several years in prison for ransacking two private newspapers last month.
A criminal court judge in the capital, Dakar, convicted El Malick Seck, managing editor of the private daily 24 Heures Chrono, under several penal code statutes including offending the head of state, publishing false news, and threatening public order, according to news reports. Seck has been jailed since he first faced police questioning in late August.
Defense lawyer Demba Ciré Bathily told CPJ that he has appealed the ruling, which also banned 24 Heures Chrono from circulation for a period of three months. The paper has been in circulation since July, according to Editor-in-Chief Sambou Biagui.
“Despite repeated claims by President Abdoulaye Wade to end the use of criminal libel laws, El Malick Seck faces a severe prison sentence. Troubling as well is the censorship that has been imposed on 24 Heures Chrono,” CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Tom Rhodes said. “Senegal’s press freedom credentials are deteriorating. CPJ urges the president to adhere to his pronouncements and ensure cases such as 24 Heures Chrono are a thing of the past.”
The public prosecutor had requested a five-year prison term against Seck, who was arraigned on September 3 after five days of interrogation in the custody of the Criminal Investigations Division. Police impounded the offending edition of 24 Heures Chrono, searched Seck’s residence, and temporarily sealed the newspaper over a front-page editorial saying that Wade and his son Karim, a special adviser, were implicated in a money-laundering case. Neither Wade nor his son have responded to the story, which was based on purported allegations made by an Ivorian politician in 2006, according to local journalists. No official allegation or charge has been made against Wade or his son.
The paper 24 Heures Chrono was one of two vandalized last month, just three days after then-Transport Minister Farba Senghor threatened unspecified retaliation against the paper and three others over critical stories. Senghor denied any involvement, but he was sacked from the government, stripped of judicial immunity, and questioned by a judge over the incident.
On Thursday, a criminal court in Dakar sentenced 12 individuals, including a driver and two bodyguards of Senghor, to five to six years in prison and a total of 22 million CFA francs in damages, according to news reports.
Senegal has been considered a haven for press freedom in Africa, but this year has been marked by hostile government rhetoric toward the media.
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.