Freedom of the Press
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Criminal prosecutions of journalists for libel during the year and the passage of a controversial broadcasting reform bill intended to muzzle the media together confirmed earlier indications that President Abdoulaye Wade does not intend to live up to his promises to protect press freedom. Although the constitution formally guarantees freedom of expression and of the press, the government often restricts these rights in practice. Article 80 of the penal code is particularly harsh, imposing severe penalties for libel and the publication of materials that compromise national security. In July, Mustapha Sow, managing editor of the private newspaper L’Office, was imprisoned on charges that he defamed a local businessman. Sow was released on bail after two weeks when his lawyer filed an appeal. He had been convicted of criminal defamation charges and sentenced to six months in prison in February, but the arrest warrant was not carried out until June. In September, two more journalists were given suspended sentences and fined the equivalent of US$100 each for a story involving a construction company accused of bribing government officials for contracts. According to Diatou Cisse Coulibaly, secretary general of the Senegalese press union, criminal libel accusations have been a particular problem under the Wade administration, resulting in broad intimidation of critical journalists and increased self-censorship.
A controversial broadcasting bill that was passed by a vote of 11 to 2 in the 120-seat National Assembly in December 2005 still awaited the signature of President Wade at the end of 2006; if approved, it would create the National Council for the Regulation of Broadcasting (CNRA). The new nine-member panel would be made up of the president’s appointees, only one of whom would be a professional with broadcasting credentials. The CNRA would function as a supreme tribunal with the power to monitor media behavior and impose punishments ranging from temporary closures to fines of up to US$18,000. The new bill would also strip the media profession’s self-regulatory body—the Council for the Respect of Professional Ethics and Conduct—of its authority to monitor and sanction members of the media who act unprofessionally.
Despite intimidation caused by the wave of criminal defamation prosecutions, much of the private media still frequently criticize the government in their reporting. Near the end of 2006, during the campaign for the February 2007 presidential election, journalists working for the private newspaper Sud Quotidien and the private radio station Sud FM reported receiving intimidating and threatening telephone calls from unknown persons. And in the central city of Mbacke, a correspondent for a local private radio station was beaten with metal cables and suffered head and back injuries after he broadcast a report critical of a local religious leader who was mobilizing his supporters for President Wade in the election. On a promising note, a court dismissed charges of breaching national security that had been leveled against several journalists whose private media company—Sud Communications Group, which operates Sud Quotidien and Sud FM—broadcast an interview in October 2005 with the rebel leader of the southern Casamance region. The court’s dismissal of the case was seen as a rebuke to the Wade administration.
Senegal has many private, independent print publications. A number of community, private, and public radio stations operate all over the country, and 70 separate radio frequencies have been granted so far by the state. Nevertheless, the Wade administration refuses to accept private participation in the television sector except for entertainment channels. The only national television station, Radiodiffusion Television Senegalaise, is required by law to be majority controlled by the state, and it broadcasts generally favorable coverage of the government. In the past, Senegal’s media watchdog, the High Audiovisual Council, has criticized the government-run television station for not reflecting diverse viewpoints and not allowing equal coverage of opposition members and religious groups. Foreign satellite television and radio stations, including Radio France Internationale and the British Broadcasting Corporation, are available. Internet access is unrestricted, but usage was estimated at just 5 percent of the population in 2006.