Last week’s unexpected coup d’etat in Mali somewhat overshadowed, in the international news cycle, a relatively peaceful transition of power in the neighboring democracy of Senegal. In a second-round vote, opposition leader Macky Sall on Sunday defeated his former mentor, 85-year-old incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade; and while European Union observers deplored some irregularities, they largely praised the election and the Senegalese news media for a “positive role” in informing voters.
Playing that role was not without its challenges.
In a new video, journalist Bocar Dieng, a reporter for independent media group Walfadjri in Fatick, east of the capital Dakar, details an attack he endured by Wade supporters for his coverage of the first round of voting February 26. He also expresses hope for justice under a new government; the Wade administration politicized a number of judicial cases brought by journalists against officials, security forces, or members of the ruling PDS party. And Dieng recounts his commitment to keeping Senegalese informed, to practicing journalism as a “counter-power” imperative for maintaining democracy.
The interview was recorded on March 5 in Dakar, in the period between the first and second round of the election. The directors of photography were Ben Herson and Elias Aba Milki, who was also the editor. The interview was conducted by Samiha Rahman.
Dieng was the first reporter to relay widespread accounts suggesting that out-of-towners had been transported into town to vote in the February 26 first round. He interviewed residents and polling station employees, some of whom claimed to have identified individuals of Haitian nationality attempting to stand in line to vote. In a live broadcast to Walf TV around 4 o’clock that afternoon, Dieng said he was working on verifying unconfirmed reports of Haitian nationals attempting to vote. (More than 150 Haitian university students arrived in Senegal on government scholarships in October 2010 at the invitation of Wade, who called his administration’s move a gesture of solidarity following the 2009 earthquake that tore apart the island nation, according to news reports.)
A half hour later, Sitor N’dour, director of a university known by its French acronym COUD and the leader of a local pro-Wade group, stormed Dieng’s home with six other men and confronted him for mentioning the reports of Haitians voting. The ensuing assault cost him a swollen eye, a broken computer and furniture. A YouTube video viewed nearly 6,000 times shows a Walf TV interview of Dieng shortly after the attack, his eye swollen, finger bleeding and a broken computer and overturned furniture in the background. N’dour did not deny storming Dieng’s home but denied participating in the assault. “[Dieng] was not assaulted in front of me,” N’dour later told the state-run Senegalese press agency APS.
Dieng has filed a complaint and police have taken statements from witnesses and some of the men involved, he told CPJ. In addition to justice for his assault, Dieng is hoping for progress on a proposed amendment to the press code that would decriminalize defamation and press offenses, but has been stalled in the National Assembly since last year because of political resistance from Wade and members of his party.
Wade’s bid for a thirm term in office sparked nationwide protests in which at least six people were killed and several journalists threatened or injured. Throughout the campaign, opposition parties and Wade supporters traded accusations of election irregularities, including attempted ballot stuffing, according to news reports. The accusations were bolstered by some arrests; eyewitness accounts from election monitors deployed by civil society groups; reports published in the local press; and crowdsourcing platforms such as Samabaat. After the run-off, however, Wade conceded defeat — a victory for democracy and perhaps, in time, for Senegalese press freedom.