In Senegal, two journalists get suspended prison terms

New York, January 20, 2012–Two Senegalese journalists with the private daily Le Quotidien were handed suspended prison sentences this week in a criminal libel case over their coverage of an armed insurgency in a separatist province, according to news reports. 

On Tuesday, a magistrate in a criminal court in the capital, Dakar, handed Le Quotidien editor Mamadou Biaye and reporter Mamadou Ticko Diatta suspended three-month prison terms over a story alleging that Bakary Diémé, deputy mayor of the district of Goudomp (280 miles southeast of Dakar), had links to armed separatists of the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC), news reports said. For the past three decades, the Senegalese army and MFDC fighters have waged a war for the independence of the southern province of Casamance, news reports said.

Le Quotidien reported in its March 4, 2010, edition that four rebel fighters captured by government troops had confessed to receiving material support from four schoolteachers, including Diémé, a public servant, according to news reports. The four were detained, news reports said. The paper attributed the information to military sources, but Diémé rejected the allegations and filed a complaint demanding 100 million CFA francs in damages, according to news reports. The court awarded Diémé damages of 2 million CFA francs (US$3,500), and sentenced the journalists to suspended prison terms, according to news reports. Local journalists told CPJ that the defense lawyers had filed an appeal.

Since 2010, a new press code bill that promised to decriminalize libel and press offenses has met resistance in the ruling Democratic Party of Senegal-dominated National Assembly, according to news reports and CPJ research.

“It is high time that the Senegalese National Assembly voted on the amended press code bill so that defamation cases can be tried in civil courts, not criminal courts,” said CPJ Africa Advocacy Coordinator Mohamed Keita. “We call on the appeals court to reverse the suspended prison sentence.”