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03.03.2024 Senegal

Record number of journalists in Senegal’s jails amid political turmoil

By Moussa Ngom and Jonathan Rozen
Record number of journalists in Senegals jails amid political turmoil
03.03.2024 LISTEN

Senegalese reporter Ndèye Maty Niang, also known as Maty Sarr Niang, would have likely jumped at the chance to report on the political crisis gripping her country since the president postponed elections in early February. But Niang can’t cover the news – she’s in a women’s prison awaiting trial.

She’s not alone: Niang is one of at least five journalists jailed since last year in Senegal in connection with their work. It’s the highest number ever recorded in the country since CPJ began keeping track in 1992 with its annual December 1 prison census.

“The government has tried to silence all discordant voices,” Babacar Touré, director of the Kéwoulo news site, where Niang worked, told CPJ in a January interview. “Maty’s place is with us, in our editorial office to prepare for this election.”

Though the journalists were arrested months before the current unrest, their detentions are indicative of a broader crackdown on press freedom and dissent which has called into question Senegal’s reputation as a stable democracy. Authorities have repeatedly jailed opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, most recently in July when they also dissolved his political party, and responded violently to protests. Journalists have faced arrest over coverage of Sonko’s prosecution, and other efforts to curb political reporting.

In early February, after President Macky Sall decided to postpone elections originally scheduled for later in the month, attacks on the media spiked. Senegalese police have targeted dozens of journalists with tear gas, violence, and harassment as they covered demonstrations against the election delay. The government has also repeatedly blocked mobile internet access.

A press code used against the press
Niang and the four other journalists in Senegal’s prisons — Allô Sénégal news presenter Ndèye Astou Bâ, the outlet’s columnist Papa El Hadji Omar Yally, its camera operator Daouda Sow, and its manager Maniane Sène Lô — face a raft of charges. Notably, each is accused of “usurping the function of a journalist.”

The charge stems from the combined application of Senegal’s press and penal codes. Adopted in 2017, the press code, which regulates the media sector, was promoted by officials as a way to professionalize the local press and strengthen democracy. But, as press freedom advocates warned at the time, it imposed limitations on who could be considered a journalist. “Only holders of a national card can claim the status of journalist,” reads Article 22 of the press code. Article 227 of Senegal’s criminal code punishes people who claim to work in a “legally regulated profession” – such as journalism – without “fulfilling the required conditions” with up to two years in prison and a fine.

“Holding the card is not about the professional identity of journalists, it’s simply a document that allows journalists to be distinguished from those who are not journalists when they go to a ceremony,” Serigne Saliou Gueye, publication director of the Yoor Yoor newspaper who has been working as a journalist for over 20 years, told CPJ. “I’m all for professionalizing journalists,” he added, but the issue of impersonating journalists is a “false problem.”

Gueye was jailed in May 2023 over a column Yoor Yoor published under an anonymous byline that criticized the prosecution of opposition leader Sonko. He was held for nearly a month and accused of usurping the function of a journalist and of contempt of court, before being released in June under judicial control, a conditional freedom set by the judge.

‘Paranoia in our ranks’
At least four other journalists – Pape Sane, Pape Alé Niang, Pape Ndiaye, and Touré – have been arrested in connection with their work over the past year and then released under strict conditions, including not speaking publicly about their cases, their lawyers told CPJ. The journalists face various accusations under the penal code, including false news and conduct likely to undermine public security. Those who spoke to CPJ did so about the general media environment in Senegal, not the specifics of their prosecutions.

“It’s all about muzzling the press…and putting pressure on those who resist,” Pape Alé Niang, editor of the news site Dakarmatin, told CPJ. His arrest in 2022 put Senegal on CPJ’s prison census that year for the first time since 2008. He was released and rearrested that December for discussing his prosecution in a Facebook live broadcast, released in January 2023, and then detained again for 10 days in July and August over a broadcast about Sonko’s arrest.

In separate cases last year, Senegalese police also arrested two Senego news website reporters—Abdou Khadre Sakho in August and Khalil Kamara in September—and accused them each of spreading false news in publications about Sonko. Kamara was additionally accused of defamation, contempt of court, and insulting the head of state. Both were released without charge within 24 hours.

“These arrests and imprisonments of journalists have created a paranoia in our ranks,” Ibrahima Lissa Faye, president of the Association of Online Press Professionals, known by the French acronym APPEL, told CPJ. “At any moment you could be prosecuted for disseminating false news without there being any false news, or for undermining state security: catch-all offenses that amount to absolutely nothing, but are used to muzzle journalists.”

CPJ reached Senegal’s Minister of Communication, Telecommunications, and Digital Economy, Moussa Bocar Thiam, over the phone and he asked to be sent a message, but did not subsequently respond to CPJ’s questions about the arrests. Calls to government spokesperson Abdou Karim Fofana, as well as calls and messages sent to Justice Minister Aïssata Tall Sall, went unanswered.

An ongoing ‘spiral’ of fear

Senegal’s constitutional court ruled in mid-February that a new election must take place as soon as possible, and a national dialogue panel has proposed June 2 as a new date. Sall has reaffirmed his earlier commitment not to run again and said he would exit office on April 2, when his term ends. Journalists have continued working amid ongoing unrest, but the prospect of arrest looms alongside threats of violence and censorship.

“There’s this constant anxiety that journalists feel on a daily basis,” Moustapha Diop, director of the Walf TV broadcaster, told CPJ. Walf TV was taken off air for a week in early February; last June it was suspended for a month over protest coverage. “We have the impression that whenever there is tension, the authorities have a simple reflex: Wal Fadjri [the parent group of WalfTV] must stop broadcasting,” Diop said.

Internet shutdowns since the election delay have also impeded journalism in what is now a familiar pattern for the local press. In 2023, internet and social media were shut down and social media was blocked in 2021. The 2023 shutdowns prompted civil society groups to file a lawsuit in January against the Senegalese government at the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court of Justice. The plaintiffs, including Moussa Ngom, an author of this piece, claimed that the 2023 shutdowns violated their freedom of expression and right to work.

“Senegalese journalists have been working in fear. Especially those in groups labeled ‘against the power,’” Ayoba Faye, another local journalist and plaintiff in the internet shutdowns lawsuit, told CPJ. “Above all, the new president must stop this spiral.”

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