Attacks on the Press in 2008: Senegal

Conditions deteriorated in Senegal, once considered a haven for press freedom. With contemptuous rhetoric, threats, physical violence, and criminal prosecutions, supporters of President Abdoulaye Wade and members of his government retaliated against critical journalists. The June 21 beating of two sports journalists covering a World Cup qualifying match in Dakar symbolized the tensions and ignited a contentious national debate over press freedom.

Plainclothes police with the Multipurpose Intervention Brigade assaulted sports editor Babacar Kambel Dieng of Radio Futurs Médias and reporter Kara Thioune of the bilingual West Africa Democracy Radio with tasers after the two refused to halt an interview and proceed to a post-game conference hall, according to the journalists and witnesses. The two men told CPJ they were handcuffed, dragged to a secluded stadium room, and beaten. Dieng’s voice recorder captured the sounds of the beating, which were later broadcast on a local radio station. The journalists were released two hours later without charge.

In a letter to the president, CPJ expressed concern about the case and what it saw as a worsening climate for Senegal’s independent press corps, one of the most vibrant in Africa. Local journalists formed a Committee for the Protection and Defense of Journalists, which organized a series of nationwide protests, including a news blackout and a thousands-strong march in Dakar.

Wade’s administration sent an ambivalent message. Interior Minister Cheikh Tidiane Sy transferred the officers involved, but in a July 10 statement, he accused the journalists of provoking the treatment by assaulting one of the officers. Information Minister Abdoul Aziz Sow told the private daily Le Quotidien that the safety of journalists was “an essential concern of the government.” But Air Transport Minister Farba Senghor called on the government and its supporters to boycott news media that were involved in the protests. The public prosecutor announced the appointment of a senior judge to oversee an investigation of the attack, but by late year no charges had been filed against any of the officers.

The case resonated in part because police had used violent tactics against journalists just three months earlier. In March, police used tasers on Walf TV reporter Ousmane Mangane as he was attempting to conduct a live interview with an opposition member of parliament, Mously Diakhaté, during an antigovernment demonstration in Dakar.

The attacks came amid heightened rhetoric from Wade, a one-time ally and darling of the press who was first elected in 2000. In his 2008 book, Une Vie Pour l’Afrique (A Life for Africa), Wade described a falling-out with the news media, which had been credited with helping spark the democratic transition that brought him to office. “The press that had accompanied and supported me during the presidential campaign of 2000 began to turn against me beginning in 2002-2003. I found these attacks very unjust,” he wrote.

In July, while attending the annual convention of the U.S.-based National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) in Chicago, Wade questioned the credentials of Senegalese journalists and accused them of being unethical. “Who is a journalist? They are politicians! Journalists are corrupt,” he told NABJ’s convention publication Unity News. The Senegalese press has been “infiltrated by politics,” the Chicago Sun-Times quoted him as saying. “If you do not give them information, they are going to invent it. They insult people. They accuse people when they don’t even have any proof.” Even as he was hailed by NABJ as “a leading spokesperson for democracy and development,” Wade said he would push for requirements that journalists be licensed, receive formal training, and earn degrees. The government took no immediate action on any of those fronts.

The president’s supporters took aim as well. In a 4,100-word, August 4 commentary in the state-run daily Le Soleil, Member of Parliament Iba Der Thiam described most Senegalese journalists as corrupt and uneducated people who engage in blackmail and “terrorist” activities. In the piece, headlined “The emergence of rogue journalism threatens our freedoms,” Thiam charged that half of all reports in the independent press were false. He declared that criticism of the government must be done “responsibly” or it undermines national interests and development.

In August, Air Transport Minister Senghor, the propaganda chief of the ruling Senegalese Democratic Party, threatened retaliation against several private dailies that had run critical stories—including an interview with Senghor’s estranged wife and an account questioning his salary as board chairman of a private bus company. In a statement published by Le Soleil, Senghor accused the newspapers of “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 said he reserved the right to take action in self-defense.

Three days later, a dozen men ransacked the newsrooms of the private dailies L’As and 24 Heures Chrono in Dakar. The assailants damaged equipment and assaulted staffers with pepper spray, injuring 24 Heures Chrono production clerk Ablaye Dièye. Several journalists interviewed by CPJ reported seeing assailants in a white Toyota L200 4×4 with the government’s official “AD” license plate. Senghor denied involvement but suggested the newspapers might have provoked the attacks. “When one saws the wind, one should expect to reap the whirlwind,” he declared in a statement.

Senghor was dismissed and stripped of government immunity on August 28 after police arrested several suspects who had ties to the minister. A criminal court in Dakar sentenced 12 individuals, including Senghor’s driver and two of his bodyguards, to five- and six-year prison terms in the attacks. Senghor was under investigation, according to news reports, but had not been charged by late year.

Senegal’s politically influential Mouride Muslim brotherhood—followers of a 19th- and 20th-century Islamic mystic and poet—attacked and threatened journalists covering their activities. In one widely reported incident in the town of Mbacké, Mouride leader Serigne Bara Mbacké punched Babou Birame Faye of the weekly magazine Weekend when the reporter sought an interview. Faye was not injured, and the leader later apologized.

Wade’s administration has come to use the national Criminal Investigations Department (CID) to police newsrooms, CPJ research shows. On March 30, for example, CID officers raided Walf TV and confiscated video footage after the station aired live coverage of clashes between police and demonstrators protesting prices of food, fuel, and other staples in Dakar. Police spokesman Alioune Ndiaye dismissed concerns that the CID was overreaching, telling CPJ in an interview that the officers were “not limited in their actions.” Throughout the year, the CID routinely summoned journalists for questioning and blocked distribution of newspapers carrying sensitive stories. In July, police impounded an issue of L’As and questioned Managing Editor Mamadou Thierno Tall and reporter Daouda Thiam after they tried to publish an interview with a trade union leader who was critical of the justice minister.

Wade came to office with pledges of reform, including an overhaul of criminal libel laws and vague national security provisions that have sent more than 10 journalists to jail since 2000. But his government has not made good on those promises, continuing to ignore a 2004 report compiled by a presidential commission. The panel, which included journalists, civil society officials, and international legal experts, called for the elimination of repressive laws barring “offense to the head of state,” “publishing false news,” and “acts breaking peace and causing grave political disturbances.” In his book, Wade said his government was still considering proposals to replace prison penalties with fines in libel cases.

In the meantime, Editor Jules Diop and Editor-in-Chief Serigne Saliou Samb of the private daily L’Observateur were handed six-month suspended sentences on libel charges related to a story critical of former Interior Minister Ousmane Ngom. Editor Papa Moussa Guèye of the private daily L’Exclusif received the same sentence for “publishing false news” over a story critical of Wade. In August, a front-page editorial commenting on an allegation of money laundering involving Wade and his son, Karim, led to the arrest and conviction of El Malick Seck, managing editor of 24 Heures Chrono, under several penal code statutes, including offending the head of state, publishing false news, and threatening public order. Seck was sentenced to three years in prison. He appealed but remained behind bars in late year.

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