DAKAR, Senegal — This week President Abdoulaye Wade pardoned Senegalese journalist El-Malick Seck and reaffirmed promises to decriminalize press offenses.
Seck's three-year prison sentence sparked widespread protests from international watchdog groups, such as the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders, but many Senegalese journalists had a different reaction: The media isn’t oppressed, it’s out of control.
“People think that in Senegal, we’re on the point of killing a journalist, but that’s really an exaggerated image. We continue to have freedom of expression,” said Diatou Cisse Badiane, head of Senegal’s press union, known by its French acronym, Synpics.
“Even when it comes to that freedom, you sometimes also have to acknowledge a certain waywardness or irresponsibility on the part of the press,” she said.
Seck, editor-in-chief of the Dakar-based newspaper 24 Heures Chrono, was arrested in August after publishing a vaguely sourced article accusing Wade and his son of money laundering in the Ivory Coast. Seck was charged with disruption of public order, disseminating false news and insulting the head of state.
Threats to press freedom have certainly intensified since Wade — who makes no attempt to hide his disdain for the press — came to power in 2000.
Newsrooms have been raided. Two journalists were beaten up by the police while covering a World Cup qualifying match last June. Three radio stations were suspended during the local elections in March.
Yet, bring this up with Senegalese journalists and they’ll tell you that you also have to look at who’s getting in trouble. Seck isn’t a journalist, they say with a roll of the eyes. He’s just a guy who had a website and some money and opened a newspaper. And, unfortunately, he’s not alone.
Since the mid-1990s, newspapers and other media outlets have been sprouting like weeds in Senegal, overtaking the newsstands and strangling what many refer to as the legitimate news sources, Badiane said.
Dakar now has a dizzying number of radio stations, television stations, newspapers, and it’s not hard to get a job as a journalist or even to open your own publication.
“What’s happening now is that all the businessmen who want to make a profit, who want to apply pressure or exert influence, rent a little apartment, get two people and an old Pentium II computer, and they say it’s a media business,” Badiane said. “We have to do something. That can’t continue.”
Reporters are thrust on beats without any professional training in communications. Some don’t have a firm grasp of ethical standards or even the French language, which is used by most of the newspapers, Badiane said.
Those untrained journalists are willing to accept salaries as low as $100 per month as opposed to the $600 to $800 a month a more seasoned journalist would demand, Badiane said.
“There are a lot of people here who call themselves journalists, but who aren’t really journalists. They haven’t been trained. They aren’t working with trained editors,” said Abdou Latif Coulibaly, editor-in-chief of La Gazette and director of the Higher Institute of Information Sciences and Communication.
Trained journalists complain that their untrained colleagues' incompetence simply gives the government ammunition in its battle with the press.
Senegalese law defines a journalist simply as someone who earns the majority of his living from journalism. The press union is lobbying to require high school degrees and advanced training in accredited journalism schools before reporters get government-issued press cards.
“The government doesn’t like the press, but above all, it doesn’t like a competent press,” Coulibaly said, adding that the government may prefer to see the media devolve into incompetence and thereby undermine its own credibility.
There are now as many as 20 dailies in Dakar. The chaos and competition these and other media outlets bring to the marketplace is just as — if not more so — detrimental to the press as the repressive laws that can send journalists to jail, Coulibaly said.
Unlike western newspapers that thrive on advertising and subscriptions, Senegalese publications rely on individual sales. Competition at the news stands is fierce, and many have had to cut their cover prices — and their quality — in half, from the equivalent of 40 to 20 cents a paper, Coulibaly said.
It’s an oversaturated, unforgiving marketplace, and there isn’t enough advertising revenue to go around, making newspapers vulnerable to less overt reprisals, Coulibaly said. He gave the following example.
In its first issue, La Gazette ran an investigation on the health risks of new low-consumption light bulbs. Unhappy with the story, the minister of energy called the oil company that had advertised on the inside cover and the advertiser, who had previously agreed to four more issues, pulled his ad.
In newspapers' quests to sell, quality reporting has given way to shallow sensationalism, particularly when it comes to the covers and headlines. It’s what Coulibaly calls "blood, sex and fait divers," a French term that refers to random tidbits of news often as irrelevant as they are salacious.
“They [newspapers] always need a scoop, something sensational, to sell papers, so they have a bit of a tendency to go overboard,” Coulibaly said.
The temptation to run eye-catching yet poorly researched stories can be hard for editors to resist, and some concede that there may, in fact, be some truth to government claims that half of what is printed in the independent press isn’t true.
A certain tension between the government and the press is healthy in a thriving democracy, but everybody has to be playing by the same rules, Coulibaly said. There is a difference between a free press and a wild press.
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