The Media Today

A crucial election for Senegal’s press

March 26, 2024
Supporters of Presidential candidate Bassirou Diomaye Faye gather at his campaign headquarters after preliminary results put him as the expected winner, in Dakar, Senegal, Monday, March 25, 2024. Faye's expected victory reflected frustration among youth with high unemployment and concerns about governance in the West African nation. Faye, backed by popular opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, has vowed to protect Senegal from corruption and interference from foreign powers like former colonial master France. (AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)

A decade or so ago, following his election as president of Senegal, Macky Sall promised that no journalist would be jailed for their work on his watch. Over the years, Sall has reiterated the pledge. Earlier this month, he again defended the importance of a free press after Maimouna Ndour Faye, an outspoken TV journalist, was stabbed overnight near her home in Dakar, the capital. (She survived; who perpetrated the attack and why was initially unclear.) “I firmly condemn this cowardly and inexcusable act of violence,” Sall wrote on X. “Freedom of the press is a fundamental right that must be protected and respected in all circumstances.”

Between Sall’s early pledges and his recent comments, however, the freedom of the press has increasingly come under threat on his watch. In 2023 alone, no fewer than ten Senegalese journalists passed through the country’s jails. Some were released under strict conditions, but at least five were still behind bars when the Committee to Protect Journalists conducted its annual global census of jailed journalists in early December, the highest such figure for Senegal since CPJ began the exercise in the early nineties. (Indeed, until 2022, Senegal hadn’t featured on the census at all since 2008, several years before Sall took office.) The journalists arrested last year faced various charges, but many of those were clearly linked to their work, including allegations that they spread “false news,” discredited state institutions, “usurped” the function of a journalist, and, in one group of cases, even incited “murder without effect” under a Senegalese law criminalizing verbal provocation, according to CPJ.

This deteriorating climate for press freedom has closely tracked a broader political crisis in Senegal, which has long been hailed as a bastion of democracy in a region increasingly marked by conflict, repression, and instability. This broader crisis led to the jailing not only of several Senegalese journalists, but of a populist opposition leader and some of his associates—as well as the postponement of elections scheduled for the end of February. 

In the end, following an intervention by Senegal’s constitutional council, the elections took place over the weekend, and a key ally of the opposition leader is now poised to take office. The crisis might appear to be over. But, both for Senegal’s democracy and for its press, damage has already been done, and the future remains uncertain.

While conditions for journalism in Senegal have long been challenging—not least economically, but also for cultural and legal reasons—international press-freedom watchers once viewed the country quite favorably: as of a few years ago, it consistently appeared in the best fifty countries on earth for press freedom according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), only one or two places worse off than the US. Many journalists trace the recent change in fortunes to the origins of Senegal’s current political crisis three years ago this month, when the populist opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko, was arrested over accusations that he raped an employee of a massage parlor. Mass protests followed, leading in turn to what RSF described at the time as “a wave of press freedom violations unlike anything seen in recent years” in Senegal. Two TV stations, Walf TV and SenTV, were taken off the air after broadcasting footage of the unrest. Journalists were injured as police dispersed protesters. News outlets’ property was attacked or set on fire.

In 2022, tensions flared again ahead of parliamentary elections, and again the press got entangled; amid other instances of threats and harassment, an official with a youth organization connected to the governing party was accused of advocating an arson attack against Walfadjri, the parent company of Walf TV. (The official apologized and said he’d misspoken.) Later the same year, Pape Alé Niang, an investigative journalist, was jailed; he was freed, but swiftly jailed again after he was accused of breaching the terms of his release. In the first months of 2023, at least three other journalists—Pape Ndiaye (of Walfadjri), Serigne Saliou Gueye, and Maty Sarr Niang—were jailed, too. The circumstances of the arrests differed—but each journalist had recently been connected to coverage or commentary on Sonko or his rape case.

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Then, last summer, the crisis escalated again after Sonko was acquitted of the rape charges but convicted of corrupting a young person. For the press, the conviction led to some bizarre scenes—not least the arrival in Senegal of a French essayist and lawyer representing Sonko who burst into a press conference (to the apparent shock of Sonko’s other lawyers) before going into hiding and eventually spending a couple of days in jail himself after being caught entering neighboring Mauritania. It also led to scenes that were more familiar, if themselves an escalation. Walf TV’s signal was cut again, this time for an entire month; the authorities also disrupted internet access; amid mass protests, a journalism school was vandalized. After Sonko was arrested again—this time for disturbing public order and plotting against the state—Pape Alé Niang, now out of prison, spoke about the case during a live broadcast on Facebook and was promptly sent back to prison, this time accused of helping to incite an insurrection.

By this point, RSF had released the 2023 edition of its World Press Freedom Index. Senegal had tumbled to 104th place out of 180 countries worldwide—a drop of fifty-seven places from its highest recent position, recorded in 2020.

Early last month, a few weeks before scheduled presidential elections and with the political situation still tense, Sall appeared on state television and announced that he was postponing the vote. The stated reason was a corruption allegation made against the constitutional council by Karim Wade, a presidential candidate (and son of a former president) whom the council had barred from running on the basis of his dual French citizenship—though critics suggested that Sall had contrived the delay because his own favored candidate, Amadou Ba, was set to lose if the elections ran on schedule. (Sall, who was theoretically term-limited, reportedly weighed running again himself before eventually deciding against it. Even before a new date was fixed for the elections, he said that he would stand aside at the end of his term, in April, and he has denied claims of an attempted power grab. “If I wanted to stay, I would simply be a candidate,” he told the BBC recently. “In Africa, everyone can have five terms if they want.”)

For the press, this latest round of crisis led to yet another escalation. In the resulting protests, at least twenty-five journalists were attacked by police, according to CPJ; one female reporter was reportedly slapped and kicked to the point of losing consciousness. Meanwhile, Sall’s communications minister not only took Walf TV off air, but stripped it of its license to broadcast altogether, claiming it had aired “subversive, hateful, and dangerous content endangering state security”; appearing on air as the decision came down, a senior Walfadjri executive suggested that the company might have to close, given that Walf TV is its primary source of revenue. On February 12, around a hundred journalists attended a vigil in Dakar, where they held aloft candles and shouted slogans including “No to the gagging of the press” and “We are all in danger.”

By then, however, Sall’s government had moved to dial down tensions—or at least, appeared to be in the process of doing so. The day before the vigil, Walf TV’s license was restored. In the weeks that followed, Sall met with media bosses in his offices and pledged to wipe out their fiscal debt. And, with the election back on track and now scheduled for the end of March, Sall pushed through an amnesty law that, among other things, saw Sonko released from prison. The five journalists still in prison were released, too. (Per CPJ, the case against one, Maty Sarr Niang, was dismissed under the new law; the others still face charges.)

Not everyone interpreted these moves purely as a good-faith bid for de-escalation, however. As the French magazine Le Point noted, some journalists saw the restoration of Walf TV’s license as a warning sign that something similar could happen to other outlets in the future. Journalists I spoke with, meanwhile, suggested that the optics of Sall’s debt-cancellation pledge, at least, were bad given the proximity of the election and the importance of independent coverage of it, and that the amnesty law—more than an olive branch to opponents and critics—was an attempt to shield government forces from future liability for alleged abuses that they committed during the protests of recent years. (International human rights groups have echoed such concerns, pointing out that dozens of people have been killed during protests since 2021.) 

Before the election, Ayoba Faye, a journalist at Walfadjri, told me that whichever candidate prevailed, they needed to oversee a change, allowing the press to do its work within safe and legal parameters. At that point, it was clear that Sonko was not going to become president, at least not for now—despite the amnesty, he remained barred from running. But an ally, Bassirou Diomaye Faye, who was released from prison alongside Sonko, was permitted to run, and was seen as having a good chance of beating Ba, Sall’s political successor. Though citizens went to the polls on Sunday, a result wasn’t expected for several days; a runoff election remained a distinct possibility should no candidate win 50 percent of the vote. It quickly became clear, however, that Faye was on track to exceed this threshold. Yesterday, Ba conceded. 

The result, as many observers have noted, marks a sharp political departure for Senegal—Faye and Sonko’s camp ran on an antiestablishment platform aimed, in particular, at disaffected young people, many of whom have recently tried to emigrate to Europe or the Americas; among other things, Sonko and Faye have pledged to restore Senegal’s “sovereignty,” including by pushing back on lingering influence from France, the former colonial power, over the country’s currency and geopolitical alignments. Observers in the Western press have asked what this might look like in practice, in a part of the world recently destabilized by a string of military coups whose leaders have severed ties to France and, often, cozied up to Russia. As I wrote in 2022, this trend has splashed back on the media, including French publications and broadcasters; more broadly, amid increasingly restrictive conditions for independent journalism, swaths of West Africa are now considered to be an information desert.  

It would be lazy to assume that the same dynamics will reproduce themselves in Senegal, a country with a distinct democratic tradition and its own geopolitical interests. For the country’s press, as for its citizens generally, the Faye era represents something of a step into the unknown. As Moussa Ngom—a journalist who runs La Maison des Reporters, a Senegalese investigative outlet, and works as a correspondent for Le Monde—told me, Sonko has often been critical of sections of the media, and has included them in his broader anti-system rhetoric. Sometimes, opposition supporters have harassed journalists perceived as hostile to Sonko.

But none of this is of the same magnitude as the Sall government’s recent, institutionalized attacks on press freedom, Ngom told me. When I reached him yesterday, after Ba conceded to Faye, Ngom told me of a “great hope” for freedom of the press and journalistic independence, even if the future is hard to predict. When it came to Faye, he added, “we really hope that he is not going to follow the path that Macky Sall traced these past twelve years.” 

Other notable stories:

  • Breaking this morning: judges in London issued a new ruling in the case of Julian Assange, the jailed WikiLeaks founder who recently asked for the right to appeal his extradition to the US, where he faces charges, including under the Espionage Act, related to his solicitation and publication of classified documents (as Mathew Ingram reported in this newsletter last month). The judges rejected most of Assange’s grounds for appeal, but asked the US government to provide additional assurances in several areas, including Assange’s First Amendment rights as a foreign citizen and his protection from the death penalty. If the US offers such assurances, they will be considered at a further hearing in May; if it does not, Assange will be granted the right to appeal.
  • The backlash continues against NBC’s hiring of Ronna McDaniel—the former chair of the Republican National Committee, who has been complicit in Donald Trump’s election lies—as a paid contributor (which I wrote about in yesterday’s newsletter). After Chuck Todd blasted the hire on NBC’s own airwaves on Sunday, hosts on MSNBC, which is part of NBC News, lined up to do likewise yesterday. Joy Reid, Lawrence O’Donnell, Jen Psaki, Nicolle Wallace, Joe Scarborough, and Mika Brzezinski were among those to speak out. So, too, was Rachel Maddow, who also accused “other parts” of NBC of seeking to “muddy” press reports that McDaniel will not be welcome on MSNBC’s air.
  • Last year, X, the social network owned by the billionaire and self-professed free-speech absolutist Elon Musk, sued the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a nonprofit research group, after it blasted Musk for bringing assorted conspiracy theorists and extremists back to the platform since acquiring it. Among other things, X characterized the report as part of an effort to drive advertisers away from the platform—but yesterday, a federal judge in California threw the suit out, ruling that it was “evident” that the company had filed it to “punish” the CCDH for its criticism and to deter future critics.
  • In recent years, researchers who study disinformation have been battered by attacks emanating from the political right—but NBC’s Brandy Zadrozny reports that some of them now see “reasons to be cautiously hopeful” as their efforts heat up ahead of the election. Among other things, a Republican congressional probe targeting researchers has “produced little,” Zadrozny writes, while the Supreme Court last week “voiced some support for governments and researchers” working with social platforms on moderation.
  • And Italy’s Foreign Press Association, a group representing international journalists in the country, has officially moved into new headquarters once used by the late prime minister and media mogul Silvio Berlusconi—including, allegedly, for his “bunga bunga” sex parties. According to Tom Kington, Italy correspondent at The Times of London, the first thing the association found was a secret doorway leading to a back staircase.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.