Freedom of the Press
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The deterioration of media freedom in Senegal continued in 2009, as President Abdoulaye Wade stepped up his assault on the press. The government regularly employed provisions of the 1977 penal code—including Article 80, which assigns prison terms for threatening national security—to detain, prosecute, fine, and incarcerate critical journalists. In addition, the National Council for the Regulation of Broadcasting (CNRA) was used to shut down community radio stations that defied government rules restricting political coverage ahead of local elections.
Article 8 of the 2001 constitution ostensibly protects freedom of expression and of the press. However, the law allows police to arrest and imprison journalists for libel. In April 2009, El Malick Seck of 24 Heures Chrono received a presidential pardon after serving seven months of a three-year sentence he had incurred for an editorial implicating Wade and his son in a money-laundering scandal. However, Seck still faced potential prison terms as well as fines and damages exceeding US$60,000 for criminal defamation in two other cases. In September, a regional tribunal in Kaolack jailed reporters Papa Samba Sene of the private daily L’As and Abdou Dia of Radio Futurs Medias. They were accused of criminal defamation, publishing false news, and criminal conspiracy. The complaint behind the indictment was filed by a regional governor who was accused of involvement in embezzling seeds meant for local farmers. The two reporters spent 12 days in pretrial detention before being released pending trial. Some cases can remain unresolved for years. In August 2009, journalist and media owner Madiambal Diagne was exonerated on criminal charges stemming from a 2004 article about executive interference in the judiciary. However, two of Diagne’s colleagues at the magazine Week-End were sentenced in June to three months in jail for defaming a deputy speaker of the parliament. Although Wade claimed to have instructed his new prime minister to proceed with the decriminalization of press offenses, there was no evidence in 2009 that such a process was under way.
Official rhetoric against the press is strident, and police often pressure journalists to reveal their sources. Police are also regularly used to harass media outlets. In August 2009, three journalists with Le Quotidien, which is also owned by Diagne, were interrogated by police following the publication of articles that accused Wade of excessive spending on a trip abroad. Despite threats, however, no further legal action was taken against the journalists.
Regulatory bodies like the CNRA continue to draw criticism for unfair enforcement of standards designed to ensure equitable access to the airwaves. In March 2009, the CNRA suspended the broadcasting operations of three community radio stations in the suburbs of Dakar for two months. They were accused of violating regulations by covering political issues during a local election campaign. In August, the police forcibly shut down Walfadjri FM and seized its equipment for failure to pay royalties of 50 million CFA francs (US$104,400) as ordered by a special court. In September, the Walfadjri broadcasting facilities were vandalized, and equipment was destroyed. Separately, a court suspended distribution of the June issue of the monthly L’Essentiel for an article that was deemed insulting and likely to disturb the public peace, according to the Media Foundation for West Africa.
The threat of legal action has led to a rising level of self-censorship among some journalists. However, there were fewer cases of physical assault or harassment against journalists in 2009 than in the previous year.
Many private, independent print publications continue to publish regularly. In addition, a number of community, private, and public radio stations operate across the country, with more than 80 radio frequencies allocated to date. Critics allege that Wade’s associates in politics, business, and the religious community receive preferential treatment in the allocation of frequencies and fees. Radio is the most important source of news due to high illiteracy rates. The four private television channels that now operate carry mostly entertainment programming. The only national television station, state-owned Radio Television Senegal, generally favors the government in its news coverage. The government has been accused of selectively granting or withholding state subsidies to influence media outlets. Foreign satellite television and radio stations, including Radio France Internationale and the British Broadcasting Corporation, are available and unrestricted. Internet access is also unrestricted, though the International Telecommunication Union reports that just over 7 percent of the population had access in 2009.